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Swiss Capital Bern Considers Legal Cocaine Project To Curb Crime

Swiss Capital Bern Considers Legal Cocaine Project To Curb Crime

The Parliament of the Swiss capital Bern has supported the idea as one way to curb crime linked to supply as well as making it easier to control quality of drugs on sale.

John Revill, Reuters

20 December 2023 at 13:00:00

This story originated from a Reuters report published on 20 December 2023.

Zurich — Switzerland’s capital is examining a pilot scheme to allow the sale of cocaine for recreational use — a radical approach to the war on drugs that is not thought to have been tried elsewhere.

Parliament in Bern has supported the idea, which still faces opposition from the city government and will require a change in national law.

Drugs policy around the world is evolving, with the US state of Oregon, for example, decriminalising possession of small amounts of cocaine in 2021 in favour of drug treatment.

Many European countries, including Spain, Italy and Portugal, no longer have prison sentences for possession of drugs including cocaine, though nowhere has gone as far as the proposal under discussion in Bern.

Switzerland is re-examining its stance on the drug after some politicians and experts criticised complete bans as ineffective, with the proposal, now in its early stages, coming after trials under way to permit the legal sale of cannabis.

“The war on drugs has failed. We have to look at new ideas,” said Eva Chen, a member of the Bern council from the Alternative Left Party, which co-sponsored the proposal. “Control and legalisation can do better than mere repression.”

High cocaine use

Wealthy Switzerland has one of the highest levels of cocaine use in Europe, according to the levels of illicit drugs and their metabolites measured in waste water, with Zurich, Basel and Geneva all featuring in the top 10 cities in Europe.

Swiss cities, including Bern, are also showing increasing usage, while prices of cocaine have halved in the last five years, according to Addiction Switzerland, a nongovernmental organisation.

“We have a lot of cocaine in Switzerland right now, at the cheapest prices and the highest quality we have ever seen,” said Frank Zobel, deputy director at Addiction Switzerland.

“You can get a dose of cocaine for about 10 francs these days, not much more than the price for a beer.”

Bern’s education, social affairs and sport directorate is preparing a report on a possible cocaine trial, although this does not mean it will definitely take place.

“Cocaine can be life-threatening for both first-time and long-term users. The consequences of an overdose, but also individual intolerance to even the smallest amounts, can lead to death,” said the Bern government.

Bern MP Chen said it was too early to say how a pilot scheme would develop, including where the drug would be sold or how it would be sourced.

“We are still far away from potential legalisation, but we should look at new approaches,” said Chen. “That is why we are calling for a scientifically supervised pilot scheme trial.”

Legal change needed

For a trial to take place, parliament must amend the law banning recreational use of the drug.

The decision could come in a few years or sooner if present cannabis schemes, with the drug sold at pharmacies, show successful results, said  commentators.

Any legalisation will be accompanied by quality controls and information campaigns, with the approach also reducing a lucrative criminal market, said Chen.

Experts are divided, with even those in favour of the trial concerned about the potential dangers.

“Cocaine is one of the most strongly addictive substances known,” said Boris Quednow, group leader of the University of Zurich’s Centre for Psychiatric Research. He said its risks are not in the same league as liquor or cannabis, citing links to heart damage, strokes, depression and anxiety.

On the other hand, Thilo Beck of the Arud Zentrum for Addiction Medicine, the largest centre for addiction medicine in Switzerland, said it was time for a more “grown up” policy towards cocaine.

“Cocaine isn’t healthy, but the reality is that people use it,” said Beck. “We can’t change that, so we should try to ensure people use it in the safest, least damaging way.”

Leo, a cocaine user in Geneva, said legalising the drug would make treatment easier, as well as reduce violence and crime linked to supply. It would also make it easier to control the quality of the drugs on sale.

“Prohibiting drugs doesn’t give good results in terms of health policies and prevention,” said Leo. “On the contrary, it looks as if countries that chose to legalise it or to depenalise drugs, have better results in terms of prevention and global health policies.

“Switzerland has been courageous in its policies with other drugs, so I think the next stage should be the legalisation of cocaine.”


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