Marijuana is now decriminalized in all of Switzerland. The new measure was passed last year and went into effect on the first of this month. Although cultivation and distribution remain illegal, anyone caught with 10 grams or less of the substance will now be free of any threat of criminal penalties, and will only be required to pay a fine of 100 Swiss francs (about £68 or $111). The decriminalization measure should result in significant savings for the criminal justice system, which will now be able to avoid processing an estimated 30,000 minor marijuana cases per year. This will also allow an estimated 500,000 current cannabis users in the country to avoid getting in legal trouble for a victimless crime.
This the culmination of lengthy efforts at cannabis law reform in the country. A 1999 report from a Swiss federal government commission unanimously recommended “a model which…makes it possible for cannabis to be purchased lawfully.” The report, however, admitted that this would require Switzerland to leave the 1961 treaty known as the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Failing this, the commission recommended a system similar to that in place in the Netherlands. Under such a system, “consumption and preparatory activities for personal consumption” would cease to be illegal, and a system of “procedural decriminalization” might be extended to “the cultivation, purchase, storage, possession, etc., of fairly sizeable [sic] quantities” and would essentially tolerate “small-scale retailing.”
Putting these recommendations into practice, though, has not proven easy. Federal attempts to legalize marijuana from 2001 to 2004 were unsuccessful, while a 2008 referendum legalizing the personal use and production of the plant failed with about 37% of the vote. About 20% of the population above the age of 15 have consumed the drug at some point, a relatively high rate for Europe.
Switzerland is already known internationally for its liberal drug policy. There was even a passing reference to the country in an episode of the HBO series The Wire involving an experimental zone of tolerance for drugs. The country is most notable for its policy toward intravenous drug use.
In the late 1980s, Switzerland suffered from a particularly high rate of HIV among intravenous users of drugs, most notably heroin but also including cocaine. An open outdoor drug scene in the city of Zürich, commonly known as “Needle Park,” soon attracted national and international notoriety. Government workers and private organizations soon began harm reduction initiatives in response. These include the distribution of sterile needles to prevent the spread of HIV through needle-sharing. Municipal authorities established supervised injection sites, areas where users can use drugs under medical supervision. Doctors involved with these programs prescribe free methadone to some users as a substitute for heroin, and even provide heroin as a last resort.
The Swiss policy on intravenous drug use has been formally studied, and the results are impressive and widely praised. As a short film by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union puts it, “The annual number of new heroin users declined from 850 in 1990 to 150 in 2002.” The rate of HIV among injecting drug users was more than halved over a period of ten years, as was their mortality rate. “Levels of new drug-related HIV infections were divided by 8 within 10 years.” A large majority of opiate or cocaine users in the country are now receiving treatment, and the benefits of the policy have not been limited to harms directly related to drug use. A study in 1999 estimated “a 90% reduction of property crimes committed by drug users.” Users with easier and cheaper access to drugs are, logically, less likely to steal to fund their habits.
During the 2008 referendum already mentioned, the subject of heroin was also on the ballot. Swiss citizens voted overwhelmingly to make the established Swiss policy toward the drug permanent. Both this decision and the more recent cannabis reform are positive steps for Switzerland. With any luck, more far-reaching legalization measures will not be far behind.
Image credit to es.wikipedia.org.