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Swiss Prescribe Heroin But Say Pot Should Stay Illegal

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GENEVA -- Philippe, 36, works for that abiding symbol of Swiss
respectability - a bank. He also likes to relax with a joint of
marijuana after work.

Until very recently it looked as though his habit might soon cease to
be a crime. But then Parliament killed government-backed legislation
that would have decriminalized cannabis consumption.

Last month's narrow 96-89 vote was ironic, because it leaves
Switzerland - a pioneer in drug liberalization - on the "no" side in a
gradual European trend toward softening the marijuana laws.

"Bans on cannabis and alcohol have always proved a failure," said
Pascal Couchepin, Switzerland's straitlaced health minister, arguing
passionately but fruitlessly for passage of the reform.

The Netherlands and Belgium have decriminalized pot consumption,
Britain has softened the penalties and France is preparing to toughen
fines but eliminate imprisonment.

The Swiss vote provided comfort to those like Swedish Justice Minister
Thomas Bodstroem who argue that Europe, in general, is far too
permissive about soft drugs.

"They solve the problem on paper but not in reality, and that's deeply
regrettable," Bodstroem said in an interview with The Associated Press
in Stockholm.

Swedish law gives fines or prison sentences of up to six months for
minor drugs offenses, while major crimes can get drug pushers up to 10
years in prison. And "most young people grow up in Sweden without
having problems with drugs," Bodstroem argues.

However, reformers said they regarded the Swiss vote as a mere blip,
because many centrist lawmakers didn't want to appear soft on crime
and drugs ahead of the Oct. 19 parliamentary elections in which the
right is expected to make big gains.

The reform lobby now hopes Parliament will pass legislation after
election pressures subside.

Although pot remains illegal, Swiss users are confident that police
will continue to turn a blind eye, allowing them to puff in peace at
home, in parks and even in the smoking cars of trains.

Philippe, the bank employee, says the vote makes no difference to him
in practice, although he wanted his surname withheld lest it harm his
chances for promotion.

He says he has smoked marijuana for half his life and believes it is
no more harmful than alcohol, though his wife, Catherine, complains
bitterly that pot makes him dreamy and forgetful.

Despite last month's vote, Switzerland remains one of the most
tolerant European countries toward drugs. It runs a heroin program
that allows around 1,300 addicts to shoot up at approved centers with
government-provided heroin, and the annual cost of about $8 million is
covered by the state's health insurance system on the grounds that
addiction is an illness rather than a crime.

Although the nine-year-old program is regularly criticized by the U.N.
International Narcotics Control Board, Swiss authorities point to a
drop in drug-related offenses. Overdose-related fatalities fell to a
16-year low of 167 in 2002. The number of addicts has remained stable
at around 30,000.

"The Swiss leapfrogged the Dutch a few years ago when it came to
embracing pragmatic drug policy reforms. They showed a leadership role
in Europe and around the world," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive
director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, which favors

"Inevitably, the process takes two steps forward and one step back.
And my sense is that what happened in the Swiss Parliament was the one
step back before the two steps forward," he said in a telephone interview.

The government hoped the drug legislation would also give the heroin
program a permanent legal footing.

It argued that at least one in 15 people in the nation of 7 million
are occasional or regular users of cannabis and that police can't cope
with the volume.

The upper house had already approved the legislation. The government's
Youth Commission endorsed the new law, as did the independent Swiss
Institute for Prevention of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, which said
cannabis is less dangerous than "alcohol and tobacco, which kill
10,000 people a year in Switzerland (and) are sold with all kinds of
marketing wizardry."

But emotions still ran high enough to kill the legislation.

"There are no harmless drugs, and young people need authority,"
declared Claude Ruey, a liberal lawmaker and sponsor of the "no-action
motion" that put government reform plans on ice.

Couchepin, the health minister, countered: "We shouldn't regard our
young people as criminals, but rather the dealers who sell cannabis to

Elizabeth, who lives in a Swiss village and is mother of a 14-year-old
pot smoker, agreed.

Asking that her surname be withheld, she said that after she
discovered her son James' marijuana plants growing among her gladioli,
he offered her a deal: If he could keep them, he would work on
improving his grades.

She said she agreed rather than see him get tangled up with drug
dealers offering harder drugs.

Pubdate: Wed, 01 Oct 2003
Source: Associated Press (Wire)
Copyright: 2003 Associated Press
Author: Clare Nullis, Associated Press Writer