Marijuana Smokers in Switzerland Pin Hopes on Support of Voters

By Simone Meier and Joshua Gallu

Nov. 30 (Bloomberg) -- Markus Walther is tired of hiding a habit of three or four joints a day. He’s hoping Swiss compatriots will vote to let him to step out of the haze.

Switzerland holds a referendum today on legalizing marijuana, Europe’s most widely used illicit drug, after supporters gathered the 100,000 signatures needed to force the vote in the nation of 7.6 million people.

“I feel like I’m always sneaking around,” said Walther, 39, who runs a hemp store in Zurich. “When you’re almost 40 and a father of two, that gets pretty tiresome.”

The “Hemp Initiative” would free the Swiss to use and grow cannabis for their own use, putting the country on a par with the Netherlands, which has the most liberal drug laws in Europe. Switzerland’s ruling coalition parties are split over the plan, with opponents including the Swiss People’s Party fearing such a law would spark cannabis tourism. About half of the country’s voters oppose the proposal.

“We would have to fear Switzerland becoming a European drug hub,” said Hans Fehr, a People’s Party lawmaker. “There’ll be more consumers, unforeseeable costs and a wider drug trade.”

Backed by the Free Democrats and the Social Democrats, two of the ruling parties, the initiative’s supporters have been handing out free copies of the “Hemp Journal” on the streets of Zurich and Bern. Opponents are countering with a newspaper campaign featuring a syringe, a joint and a call for voters to keep their “hands off” drugs.

So far, those tactics are winning out. A minority of the 1,209 voters, 38 percent, surveyed by the Bern-based GfS research institute between Nov. 10-16 back the “Hemp Initiative,” with some 50 percent opposing the proposal.

Imported Plants

That’s bad news for dope smokers like Cornelia, a 29-year- old Zurich student, who asked that her family name not be disclosed for fear of legal repercussions.

“Sometimes I end up buying it in parks,” said Cornelia. “That’s where you meet the drug mafia where you could buy anything. I’d rather buy it somewhere with a quality check.”

Under the draft law, the commercial production and sale of marijuana would be tolerated under strict regulations. Stores would be banned from selling cannabis to people under 18 and parliament would have a say in limiting the strength of imported marijuana plants.

Some 44 percent of Swiss aged 13 to 29 have smoked marijuana at least once, according to Swiss Health Ministry figures. Nine percent said they smoke the drug almost daily.

‘Less Radical’

In all, 31 percent of people living in the European Union and aged between 15 and 34 have used cannabis, according to the Lisbon-based European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction. Switzerland, which is outside the European Union, wasn’t included in the study.

When they go the polls, the Swiss will also vote on a government proposal allowing authorities to continue handing out heroin to long-term addicts over 18 years and providing free treatment. The possession and sale of hard drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, would remain illegal.

Sixty-three percent of voters surveyed by GfS this month back the government’s heroin plan, even as a minority are favoring the decriminalization of marijuana. A result is due after 6 p.m. in Zurich.

“In these situations, the Swiss tend to favor the less radical proposal,” said Lukas Golder, a spokesman at GfS. “That seems to be the case here.”

Back in Zurich, Walther hopes that voters will allow him to enjoy marijuana without fearing prosecution.

“You have to learn to deal with thousands of addictive things in life, like TV and sugar,” he says. “You have to learn to pace yourself. When it’s legal, you can do that. When it’s against the law, it’s dangerous.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Simone Meier in Frankfurt at smeier@bloomberg.net; Joshua Gallu in Zurich at jgallu@bloomberg.net

Last Updated: November 30, 2008 03:11 EST

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