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 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 such as 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 provides fines or prison sentences of up to six months for
minor drug offenses, while major crimes can get drug pushers up to 10 years
in prison.

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 about
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.


Pubdate: Mon, 06 Oct 2003
Source: Oklahoman, The (OK)
Copyright: 2003 The Oklahoma Publishing Co.
Contact: yourviews@oklahoman.com
Website: http://www.oklahoman.com/