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Swiss parliament legalises Absinth, but not cannabis (16.06.2004)

On Monday evening, 14 June 2004 the Nationalrat, the lower house of the Swiss federal parliament, voted 102 to 92 against accepting the draft drug law reform bill of the federal government. This effectively kills the bill more than three years after it was drafted by the coalition government.

Ironically, on the same day the cannabis reform bill died, parliament lifted the 96 year old ban on Absinth, a potent liquor (55-70% alcohol by volume, i.e. 110-140 proof). Following a gruesome murder case in 1907, the liquor was banned after media frenzy that looked a lot like an early precursor to Harry Anslinger's "Reefer Madness". While cannabis-reform foes warned that the government's reform bill would "trivalize" the risks of addiction and health risks, they decided to legalise one of the most potent forms of alcohol available. Alcohol abuse kills some 4000 Swiss per year. Interestingly, Absinth originates from the French-speaking part of Switzerland, where opposition to Cannabis reform ist strongest.

The reform draft sought to exempt use, possession and personal use cultivation of cannabis from criminal sanctions. Commercial cultivation and dealing were supposed to be put under an expediency principle, so that people would not be prosecuted as long as they abided by certain rules, such as no cultivation for export or sales to non-residents of Switzerland.

The result was expected by many, after a similar result last autumn. Since then the upper house had confirmed its support for the bill, but the health committee of the lower house voted narrowly against it (13:12).

All 51 voting members of social democratic SP and the 15 Greens voted for introducing the draft. In the centrist FDP and the Liberals, only a majority of 21 to 18 voted for it, with one abstention. The half-hearted support from the FDP plus a U-turn by the centre-right CVP, which voted 23:3 against, led to the defeat. The 52:2 opposition by the nationalist-populists of the SVP came as little surprise. The CVP had been supporting cannabis reform for several years, but changed its tune last year after losing votes to the SVP.

The media echo to this failure has been quite negative. Editorials in leading national newspapers blamed politicians for avoiding to deal with the failure of existing policies. The bill was meant to provide not only for quasi-legal cannabis but to enshrine the "four-pillar-policy", with harm reduction as a central element of drug policy. Currently, a heroin prescription trial operates on a temporary basis only until the end of 2004. The revised law was meant to provide a permanent basis for such policies, but opposition to cannabis reform has jeopardized this.

"It's a pity, this is not the help that we had expected," commented Jean-Pierre Monti, general secretary of the Association of Swiss Police Officers. The refusal to decriminalise Cannabis and cutbacks on funding and staff would not make the job of the police any easier.

A leading teachers' federation (LCH) and a federation of police officers were critical of the failure to allow the reform bill to enter parliament. A spokesman of the teachers' federation said his organization was "not happy at all" about the move. The organization had supported the reform bill, because it does not see criminal sanctions as an effective means of protecting youth. It has called for an integrated approach that does not pretend this is a problem the police could solve.

Thomas Zeltner, director of the Federal Office of Health expressed his regrets at the decision. he now expects that the failure to pass the reform will cement regional inequalities in how the present law would be applied, from relatively tolerant German-speaking cantons (states) in the east to more repressive policies in French-speaking cantons.

This is not the end of the road for reform yet. Switzerland is famous for its form of direct democracy, that makes liberal use of the initiative process to pass or defeat laws. Had the reform bill been passed by the Nationalrat, opponents of the bill would certainly have gathered enough signatores to challenge the law at the ballot box.

Now the reverse is going to happen: On the same day parliament defeated the draft, a committee called "Pro Jugendschutz gegen Drogenkriminalitšt" ("For Protection of Children and Young People, against Drug Crime") announced its plans to gather the necessary 100,000 signatures this summer to pass a reform measure, entirely bypassing parliament.

According to the group, numerous members of parliament have already expressed there interest in supporting the initiative. The initiative's website (in German only so far) is . The organisers expect the campaign to cost about 1,000,000 Swiss francs (US$800,000 / EUR 660,000), much of which is needed for paid advertisements in the media. In addition, there is a need for many volunteers to help gather signatures.

Joe Wein

Verein fuer Drogenpolitik e.V.
Drug Policy Association