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1. Introduction: Why write a cannabis report? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Administrator   
Tuesday, 08 June 2010 00:00

1. Introduction: Why write a cannabis report?

1.1 Cannabis as the focus of expert opinions and political initiatives

In recent years, cannabis has repeatedly and increasingly become a political topic. The parliamentary initiative put forward by Vermot, a member of the Lower House of Parliament, on 8 October 1997, for example, proposed the decriminalization of cannabis cultivation and use. Cantonal initiatives in Basel- Land (22 October 1997) and Zurich (21 January 1998) proposed deleting cannabis products from the Swiss Narcotics Act, while a cantonal initiative in Solothurn (7 December 1992) petitioned for the legalization of all narcotic substances. This accumulation of political initiatives concerning the legal treatment of cannabis and its derivatives led the Commission to launch a detailed study of the cannabis problem, with special reference to the situation in Switzerland. We should first consider why the Commission is producing a special report on cannabis instead of an all- encompassing report on drugs. Other drugs have been equally in the political spotlight, and cannabis and its derivatives are subject to the same regulations as many other narcotic substances. The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs put these drugs on a list of prohibited substances with especially dangerous properties (known as Schedule IV) as long ago as 1961 1 , and the Swiss Narcotics Act 2 classifies cannabis as a prohibited substance alongside heroin, cocaine and a number of hallucinogens. In the bill submitted to parliament on the amendment of the Swiss Narcotics Act in 1973 3 , the Federal Council justified its refusal to accord cannabis a special status with the fear that this substance could become an "entry- level" drug leading to consumption of harder drugs. This view was contested shortly afterwards in the drug report issued by Federal Narcotics Commission's Subcommission for Drug Issues in 1983 4 . A subsequent report published by the same Commission in 1989 (" Aspects of drug policy") 5 noted in particular: "From a pharmacological viewpoint, cannabis has absolutely no properties that would increase the risk of users switching to other drugs." Although the Commission recommended legalizing the use of all drugs in this report, it saw no reason to accord cannabis a special status. The Federal Council's bill submitted to parliament on two popular initiatives - "Youth without drugs" and "Towards a rational drug policy - DroLeg" - dated 19 June 1995 6 also made no mention of a special regulation for cannabis. The document pointed to various possibilities for revising the existing legislation and drafting new laws (on addictive behavior, therapeutic approaches, addiction prevention), but did not differentiate between the various narcotic drugs. It stated among other things: "The legislation specifies narcotic substances which it approves for precisely defined uses and the abuse of which it seeks to suppress by means of threats of prosecution". It also emphasized: "This approach will retain its significance in the future and will need to be developed further and adapted in 'substance- oriented' legislation such as the laws governing medicinal products and chemical substances" (p. 28). The commission of experts charged with revising the Swiss Narcotics Act (the "Schild Commission") in turn observed in its report issued in February 1996  with reference to cannabis: "There are factors that speak for, and those that mitigate against, special treatment of cannabis products, such as the permissibility of retail trade, tolerance of certain sales outlets, or the sale of cannabis under a state monopoly." However, the majority view of the Commission was ultimately that "too many questions remain unanswered to justify a different treatment of cannabis to that accorded to the other narcotic drugs". Finally, the report on "Drug policy scenarios" published by the Swiss Federal Narcotics Commission's Subcommission for Drug Issues (June 1996) 8 should be mentioned. This report comes out unequivocally in favor of the recommendations in the "Schild report"; the majority of the Commission members also recommends the legalization of drugs in the longer term, with differentiated and regulated access. Here, too, cannabis is not accorded a special status.

All the reports quoted here have highlighted the impracticality of differentiating between "soft" and "hard" drugs. The arguments in favor of this position can be roughly summarized by the statement that the risks associated with consumption do not derive from the substance as such but from the concentration of the substance and the regularity and intensity with which it is consumed. The danger of dependence, too, is not a factor of the substance but of the individual and his environment and consumption habits. Although none of the above- mentioned reports has confirmed the risk of cannabis consumption encouraging use of harder drugs, as surmised by the Federal Council during the revision of the legislation in 1975, fears were expressed that a change in the status of cannabis could suggest tacit approval on the part of the government. Would another legal drug not pave the way to greater consumption – against the background of the considerable problems already associated with alcohol consumption and smoking? It was also pointed out that the negative effects and risks associated with cannabis were not sufficiently understood at that point. Ultimately, it was practical reasons that led the majority of the "Schild Commission" not to recommend a special status for cannabis. "Unimpeded commercial exploitation of the psychotropic properties of cannabis could lead to problems similar to those encountered with alcohol. It would therefore be necessary to suppress industrial mass production and to introduce market regulation" (report, p. 55).

1.2 Why reassess the position of cannabis?

So what led the Federal Commission for Drug Issues to take a different approach from its predecessor and to consider the cannabis question in isolation from other drugs? The discussions surrounding the drug policy initiatives mentioned above showed that some people felt that cannabis should be taken off the list of prohibited narcotic substances. But even some of those who opposed the legalization of cannabis were unhappy about the current situation regarding cannabis, particularly the lack of clarity in the existing policy and the difficulties in implementing it. There are various inconsistencies that need to be resolved, such as the excessive number of people reported for using cannabis, the differences in the ways the different cantons apply the law, and the inequality of the treatment meted out to drug users (severely addicted individuals given heroin legally as part of sanctioned heroin prescribing programs, as compared with users of less dangerous substances who have to deal with the effects of prohibition). One of the criticisms leveled at the DroLeg initiative was that it advocated a single, undifferentiated principle which would apply to all substances equally. This implied that differentiation between the various substances would be desirable, an approach that had already been suggested by the Federal Narcotics Commission's Subcommission for Drug Issues in the above- mentioned scenario "Legalization with differentiated access". In these recommendations, the type of access would be determined on the one hand by the risks posed by the substance (toxicity, addiction potential), but on the other hand also by the importance of the substance to certain parts of the population. The assessment needed to implement these recommendations would also include legal drugs. Further arguments derive from socioeconomic considerations. Switzerland currently has a fairly widespread cannabis production network, encompassing both agriculture and private cultivation. A distribution network with special shops dealing in cannabis products covers the entire country. The fact that cannabis is perceived as the only illegal drug produced locally or on a non- industrial scale accords it a special status in the minds of users and a large part of the population. The relatively recent spread of such production and trade points to ways of enabling legal access to cannabis products and fuels the hope that such products will in this way be kept off the black market. This development is one reason for the growing uncertainty experienced by many people with respect to the justification for and the objectives and application of a policy that prohibits cannabis. The Commission has also noted that the significance accorded to cannabis consumption, the perception of cannabis as an addictive substance, and its social connotations have also changed considerably. A culture is increasingly coming to the fore in which individuals are gravitating ever further away from hard drugs; in such a situation there is a danger that the need to obtain cannabis on the black market will create a greater risk of people switching to hard drugs than if cannabis were available through special, regulated channels. Manipulated cannabis containing far higher levels of THC is already available on the black market. It is therefore justifiable to ask whether it is not time to accord a preferential status to local production and "traditional" consumption. Today there is no doubt that the use of cannabis cannot be prevented by prohibition. It is becoming increasingly clear that cannabis users do not see themselves as drug users. Even where they do perceive themselves as belonging to a kind of subculture, they do not feel that this subculture is associated with any particular problems. This was emphasized in the "Schild report" (p. 55): "Both consumption and public acceptance of cannabis use have increased since the Swiss Narcotics Act was amended in 1975, and both developments have taken place without the individuals involved experiencing any real sense of doing anything wrong." The credibility of the law and the judicial system is increasingly being undermined by the persistence of the repression of cannabis and the fact that behavior which is not perceived as unacceptable is being punished. Scientific studies carried out to date provide no evidence that cannabis products are toxic to any alarming degree. The risks associated with using cannabis are lower than those of most other illegal drugs. To the extent that a risk comparison is possible at all from a scientific point of view, this comparison should rather be made with legal recreational and addictive substances. There is no doubt that cannabis is not harmless, but any assessment of its risks needs to compare it with the drugs that are already an integral part of our society.

1.3 Structure of the report

This report is intended to form the basis for decisions concerning drug policy in Switzerland. It makes no claims to completeness in terms of scientific findings and considerations; the reader interested in more detail is, however, directed to the relevant literature where available. The report starts with a survey of the current situation in Switzerland (Chapter 2). Not all chapters will be equally interesting to all readers. Those less interested, for example, in the pharmacology or historical aspects of cannabis can simply leave out these sections; however, all chapters are equally relevant in their contribution to a thorough understanding of the conclusions reached by the Commission. The question of the medical use of cannabis has deliberately been dealt with only in outline. This is an aspect which must be considered separately from the recreational use of cannabis in terms of both the concept applied and the way this concept is pursued, and is not one of the primary concerns of this report. Chapter 3 considers some fundamental ethical aspects of an addiction policy acceptable to society. Chapter 4 approaches some of the fundamental legal questions involved. It clarifies a number of terms and models which crop up repeatedly in the drug policy discussion – specifically when comparisons are made with other countries. In particular, the possibilities and limitations of the much- cited expediency principle are discussed in the context of the situation in Switzerland. Chapter 4 then proceeds to outline a number of possible alternatives to the existing law. A fundamental distinction is made between models which could be implemented within the terms of international agreements (especially the "Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs" dating from 1961) and true models for legalization which go beyond the scope of this convention. These two sections are structured in such a way that they cover the entire spectrum from minor adjustments to full, completely unregulated legalization without evaluating the individual alternatives in any way. The possible impact of each alternative is discussed in Chapter 5. The focus here is on the effects on consumption and consumption patterns, on willingness to use cannabis, and on the effects of using it. The likely consequences of each alternative on the illegal cannabis market are also discussed. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the need for regulation and the political implications of the alternatives. Chapter 6 evaluates the alternatives. The primary objectives of the cannabis policy are examined in order to derive practicable subgoals, and each of the alternatives presented in the preceding chapters is examined to determine its anticipated congruence with these objectives. The chapter concludes by presenting models which the Commission believes are feasible. Chapter 7 closes with the Commission's recommendations.

References

1 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, New York, 30 March 1961

2 Bundesgesetz über die Betäubungsmittel, BetmG, + Änderungen und Verordnungen (EDMZ 812.121 ff)

3 Botschaft des Bundesrates zur Revision des Betäubungsmittelgesetzes, 1973

4 Drogenbericht der Subkommission Drogenfragen der Eidg. Betäubungsmittelkommission, 1983

5 Aspekte der Drogensituation und Drogenpolitik in der Schweiz, Bericht der Subkommission Drogenfragen der Eidg. Betäubungsmittelkommission, Bundesamt für Gesundheitswesen, June 1989

6 Botschaft des Bundesrates vom 19.6.1995 zu den Volksinitiativen "Jugend ohne Drogen" und "für eine vernünftige Drogenpolitik" (Droleg- Initiative)

7 Bericht der Expertenkommission für die Revision des Betäubungsmittelgesetzes (" Kommission Schild"), February 1996 (EDMZ 311.814 d)

8 Drogenpolitische Szenarien, Subkommission Drogenfragen der Eidg. Betäubungsmittelkommission, Bundesamt für Gesundheitswesen, June 1996 (EDMZ 311.813 d)

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