Five hundred years of democracy, said Orson Welles contemptuously, and Switzerland has produced... the cuckoo clock. Orson, you spoke too soon. Unknown to all but the drug cognoscenti, Switzerland is now the only country in Europe to grow cannabis legally and unsupervised by government. You can make food and clothing from it. You can even smoke it. Mike Bygrave reports. Photograph by Sandro Sodano
Saturday 16 September 1995
Talk about a lost cause. When the advertisement was re-run in 1992, with many of the same signatories, not only was marijuana still illegal but Britain was committed to an American-style "war on drugs". The official line on dope, weed, pot, ganja, grass, puff, cannabis, reefer or hemp - the various names for marijuana - has remained hard. Last year, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, increased the maximum fine for possession from pounds 500 to pounds 2,500. The tabloid press pilloried the Liberal Democrats for debating a motion to decriminalise (as opposed to legalise) marijuana; and the flak was still flying this summer when Labour attacked Lib-Dem Chris Davies at the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election for being "soft on drugs" (Davies won, anyway).
So why do so many people still believe cannabis will soon be legal - first in Europe, then the UK? According to Mike Goodman, the director of Release, which has campaigned against the British drugs laws since the Sixties, much has already changed in Britain. He says that the law is being enforced, but often with reluctance: "It depends where you get caught. There are parts of Wales and various rural areas where you'll certainly go to court for possessing cannabis and get a fairly stiff fine" (though seldom anything like Howard's draconian pounds 2,500). "In other areas, such as London, you'd be unlikely even to get a caution. 'Informal disposal' is more likely, which means the police throw it down the drain." Goodman points out that, since politicians continue to be obdurate, the responsibility for developing a rational policy on cannabis falls upon an alliance of the police, the courts and public opinion.
Despite this typical British fudge, he warns, there are numerous casualties. "Contrary to popular belief, more and more people are prosecuted for cannabis offences every year. It's up from around 20,000 in 1985 to around 50,000 today and, although the police claim the biggest rise is in the number of cautions, there is also a steady increase in people going to court."
According to the police - and Goodman agrees - this is largely because of the enormous rise in smokers. An Exeter University study, published in July, found that 32.9 per cent of boys and 27.3 per cent of girls aged between 15 and 16 had smoked pot, a threefold increase since 1989. If cannabis does become legal in the UK, it will be because of the sheer weight of statistics like these. Even Keith Hellawell, hard-line chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers' drugs committee, says that drug use has become "an endemic and ingrained" part of British youth culture.
Establishment attitudes have altered more quickly in Europe, although, as in Britain, it remains more a question of regional variations and de facto decriminalisation than of an outright change in the law. Smoking cannabis is tolerated in parts of Germany, Switzerland and, of course, Amsterdam, where 450 coffee houses have been selling it on a quasi-legal basis since 1976. Advertising is not allowed, users must be over 18, and there are penalties for dealing outside a licensed place. But police turn a blind eye on how the coffee shops get the stuff. In recent years, as America's war on drugs has become ever more punitive and hysterical, some of America's top marijuana growers have moved to Holland. Paradoxically, their highly visible presence, together with the waves of "drug-tourists" visiting Holland for hard as well as soft drugs, has led to calls for tougher law enforcement.
In Germany, liberalisation is just beginning. After a federal court ruling last year, the state of Schleswig-Holstein has come up with a new model for cannabis law. Horrifying conservatives, it has suggested that cannabis be sold legally in chemists' shops. Already, authorities in northern German states rarely prosecute anyone in possession of less than 30 grams. In Switzerland, Andy Stafforte, vice-president of the Swiss organisation Friends of Hemp, declares that it's cool to smoke in Zurich, Basle, Lucerne, Bern and St Gallen, "but you can only go so far". Police ignored a pot-smokers' cafe which opened in Bern, then busted the owners when they boasted of their activities to the press. This makes the position of a man like Bernie Stocker all the more intriguing. In his early thirties, balding and bespectacled, Stocker looks like a bank clerk. In fact, he is something even more conservative: a Swiss farmer , but a farmer whose crop is marijuana. At his family farmhouse in Rain, six miles outside Lucerne, a miniature Swiss flag flies atop a marijuana plant sitting on the dining table. Down the road, a whole field of such plants is shooting up among his cows and his corn. For the first time this year, along with more than 100 other farmers spread across western and northern Switzerland, Bernie Stocker is growing pot legally for a living. "I read an advertisement for it in the farmers' newspaper," he explains. "It was new. I liked the look of the plant. Swiss agriculture needs new products and new markets. There was still some ambivalence in my mind between hemp and drug abuse, but Iread a book about it and I realised that was just propaganda put out by the Americans." To Stocker, it is crucial that he calls his crop "hemp" rather than marijuana: he sees himself as part of what is loosely described as the European Hemp Movement. "Hempers" such as Stocker are interested in the numerous non-drug products that can bemade from marijuana. Stocker says that he has never smoked a joint and doesn't want to, although he admits that his wife is experimenting with a cannabis cookbook. To the Stockers, hemp is just another potential cash crop. Or is it? Critics of the Hemp Movement say it is a ploy to legalise cannabis under another name. They point out that, if farmers are allowed to grow marijuana willy-nilly, the cannabis laws will become a farce. While police in many European countries have become less willing to prosecute smokers, they are keen to pursue the cultivators, whether amateur or professional. In Britain, says Mike Goodman, there has been "an enormous increase" in prosecutions forcult ivation. In Amsterdam, the high-tech American growers - whose dope, with brand-names like "skunk", "bubblegum" and "Northern Lights", is exceptionally strong - have to conduct their experiments indoors. But the Hemp Movement needs the great outdoors, and it has always been stymied by the image of illegality - until now. In Switzerland, hemp is an old tradition: Swiss farmers grew their own until the early Sixties, when the custom died out with the start of global panic over drugs. Now, it appears, the law was never changed. "Ja, ja, this is it exactly," admits Josef Ack ermann, vice-director at the Swiss Ministry of Agriculture. "Until two years ago, nobody noticed." Switzerland is not part of the EC or a signatory to the relevant international conventions. Under Swiss law, Ackermann explains, "you have to look that you don't produce hemp for drugs, which is forbidden, but not if you produce hemp for anything else." The man who discovered this remarkable legal loophole is Jean-Pierre Egger, a renegade Swiss lawyer and self-appointed "people's tribune", for whom hemp is the latest of many causes. Together with an adventurous American woman, Shirin Patterson, he has f ormed the Swiss Hemp Trading Company (Swihtco). It was Swihtco which placed the advertisement Bernie Stocker read, and Swihtco which later sold Stocker and his fellow farmers their seeds and contracted to buy their harvests. To the farmers, hemp maybe a crop like any other, but, for Swihtco, their conversion is highly significant. Swihtco has two objectives: to create a multi-million dollar hemp industry, and to blow wide open the issue of legalising cannabis. This would be a tall order for a multi-national corporation, let alone two obscure individuals with limited private incomes and interesting pasts. Egger qualified as a lawyer in 1973 but never practised conventionally. He toured Asia by motorbike, became an environmental activist, and then worked for the World Wildlife Fund in Geneva. But, he says, he tried to expose a money-laundering scam and, as a result, the WWF got rid of him. Then he was disbarred in Geneva. He turned to defending pot-smokers,lat er earning himself a three-month jail sentence in Geneva (which he is appealing) for passing out cannabis leaves in the street. He was becoming known for his command of Swiss drug law, as well as his constant provocations of authority, when Friends of He mp sent Shirin Patterson to see him. The daughter of a wealthy American anaesthetist who had worked in Iran (hence her Persian name), she was looking for a business to start when she met Egger, heard about the Swiss loophole and founded Swihtco withhim.
They make an odd couple. Egger talks in diatribes, which usually involve the Yankees polluting the planet. He's a sort of modern-day Danton, an all-purpose provocateur with the character of a trial lawyer, only comfortable on the attack. Whenever hespea ks, Patterson, who must have heard it all a thousand times, falls silent and stares at him as if mesmerised. Although she's Swihtco's owner and sole financier, "she is doing whatever Jean-Pierre is saying", as Andy Stafforte from Friends of Hemp puts it.
When I met them at Stocker's farm, they arrived on a big BMW touring bike. Egger is 46, clean-cut and square-jawed, with a resemblance to the American movie star Tom Berenger. Patterson, 39, is quiet and elfin. They quickly launched into a passionate des cription of hemp. "There's an enormous potential market," Patterson enthused, "for paper, clothing, food and fuel made from hemp; products for creams and shampoos and other personal care items; sun blocks, construction materials - you can build houses with this stuff. And Swiss farmers will have the monopoly of the raw material." Egger, who has been called "the apostle of cannabis" by Swiss newspapers, adds: "The only thing this plant can't do is talk. You can make clothes from it, edible oil and other foods - we're working with one of Switzerland's top restaurants to put ona go urmet dinner with dishes made of hemp. You can also make birdseed and food for livestock; it cures asthma, it helps insomnia; there are medical uses for Aids and cancer patients..." It used to be only ageing hippies who raved about marijuana as if it was the Philosopher's Stone. Now you hear such talk all over Europe from disciples of the Hemp Movement. In Switzerland, hempers call the plant "Swiss petrol", and tell you how Hitler l iterally ran his tanks on hemp. Bill Barth, an Amsterdam-based American who wants to promote hemp culture in developing countries, says, "all the Sixties true believers, the hippies with a mission, are back, and this time they're flogging a good onewith hemp. Some of what they say is exaggerated. I've seen people hold up a bottle [of cannabis oil] and say, 'this is the future of the world', but a lot of it is true. Hemp is a remarkable bio-resource that needs only caveman technology to exploit it."
Calling marijuana "hemp" was the first PR move: it turned hemp into pot with lace curtains. Now hemp shops, the modern version of hippie "head shops", are opening up across Europe: ten already in Germany, three in Switzerland. Numerous small companies ar e experimenting with hemp products. Barth maintains that hemp has gone beyond hippies and is being taken up by trendsetters. "Next, you're going to have a Paris fashion designer do a couture collection in hemp." Yet, for all the efforts of the Hemp Movement to sanitise its image, critics say it remains a Trojan Horse for people who want to smoke cannabis. Egger, for example, talks about the legitimate applications of hemp yet is the legal advisor to Friends of Hemp, which is the main Swiss dope users' assoc iation. Talk for ten minutes with most hempers, and they've forgotten about relieving the suffering of cancer patients or aiding the Third World - they're lecturing you on the basic human right to get stoned out of your skull. Egger's defence is to claim that the sort of hemp Swihtco grows doesn't make good dope (this is true, but plant strains are developing all the time). He then changes tack and says that the "grass" it does make gives a natural high, "like a morning coffee or a tonic. It's an effect the lady of the house will appreciate when its 4pm, the children are playing, and she takes some relaxation." Until Swihtco came along, it was assumed that growing cannabis for whatever use was illegal throughout Europe, never mind the USA, where many of Swihtco's farmers would face the death penalty for growing more than 60,000 plants. There are some minorexce ptions to the laws, particularly in France, where they grow a denatured "French hemp" with almost no THC (the bit that gets you high). French hemp is no good for anything but low-grade paper and fibreboard. Under these circumstances, Egger and Patterson's discovery of the Swiss loophole should have made them the patron saints of the Hemp Movement. Instead, they say they've been ignored. "It's too big," Patterson says. "It's too incredible. No one can believ e we can grow the plant freely and legally in Switzerland, of all places." Her "legal adviser" (as a smiling Egger styles himself) has a different, more sinister, explanation. He blames the influence of the American growers in Amsterdam, the most powerful group in the Hemp Movement. As American drug enforcement got tougher, som e of the top growers went into voluntary exile in Holland. These are the men whose work in plant-breeding in the past 20 years has turned marijuana into America's biggest cash crop, worth an estimated (if disputed) $32 billion a year, according to the New York Times. Every autumn, following the harvest, Amsterdam's Cannabis Cup competition chooses the prize strains in an Oscars ceremony for the dope world. According to Egger, the Amsterdam Americans dismiss what's happening in Switzerland because their own business thrives on prohibition. "They have an underground mentality," he rails, "whereas we are free." This isn't the whole story, however. Last year, after Swihtco's first trial season, when ten Swiss farmers grew hemp for seed, Swihtco advertised for foreign investors, targeting the Amsterdam Americans in particular. Bill Barth, who says he was "testing the waters" for his fellow expats, paid Swihtco 13,000SFr (pounds 7,500) to grow a hectare of hemp from seeds produced in Amsterdam: the contract was signed in Lausanne railway station. But in May this year, Patterson reported that Barth's crop had fail ed. Barth says he is still waiting for the refund he was promised. Andy Stafforte, who is also the jovial, bearded owner of Bern's hemp shop, defends Egger. "Jean-Pierre isn't greedy," he says, helpfully, "he's very, very stingy. Really, he can't get himself to put his hand in his pocket. It's a Swiss illness. And he's a little bit dictatorial also. Now he's saying the Amsterdam people are all dealers, not hempers. Jean-Pierre is very black and white." With both Patterson and Egger, figures are a grey area. This year, there are either 135 or 120 or 111 farmers growing Swihtco hemp. Each farmer, it seems, pays Swihtco 600SFr a hectare for seeds and "legal advice", and Swihtco contracts to buy the crop f or 8,500SFr a hectare (corn prices, by comparison, are around 4,000SFr). Swihtco call themselves "intermediaries" between the farmers and the markets but, a month before the harvest, they had signed few contracts. They kept telling me about the potential riches, but the only deals they seemed to have were with Andy Stafforte's hemp shop and a mail-order scheme of their own selling aromatherapy cushions stuffed with hemp. They say that the Swiss authorities discourage business people from dealing with them. Switzerland runs its own, small hemp programme, subsidising farmers who grow hemp; but this is "French hemp", which nobody seems to want. Though it has been running fo r several years, the government programme has only attracted a paltry ten to 12 hectares each year. Andy Stafforte, for one, thinks there is a hidden agenda: "What the hell is the reason to grow fibre hemp in Switzerland where there is no functioning mac hine to treat it and the textile factories that might use it closed 20 years ago? I think the government only does it so they can say to people, 'Look, we have tried it; it's worth nothing.' So I'm very happy Swihtco is there to prove them wrong." But Swihtco, too, is guilty of wishful thinking. In 1994, it was reported that they had a "forward contract" with Migros, the Sainsbury's of Switzerland, for 60 tons of hemp to make edible oil, but the contract turned out to be merely a general expression of interest. Earlier this year, they launched, then abandoned, an ambitious scheme to make textiles. The scheme depended on government s ubsidies for Swihtco's natural hemp, containing THC, which were promptly - and predictably - refused. The hype and the hustle go with the territory. Egger and Patterson are trying to conjure an entire industry into being using nothing but willpower. Yet governments are not stupid. They know that any serious hemp industry would make the marijuana laws eve n more of a nonsense than they are already, and they will stop it. "There would be pressure from other countries if Switzerland started to produce [on a large scale]," says Josef Ackermann of the Swiss Agriculture Ministry, "and, if this happens, then we change our law. The farmers won't prevent us. They get too many subsidies for t oo many other crops and, if people say 'the farmers produce drugs', those subsidies will be cut." The point is persuasive. Nor is it limited to Switzerland. The Dutch, too, are under pressure from neighbouring countries: the city of Amsterdam is considering closing half the "coffeehouses", and the Dutch government wants to cut the quantity of marijua na that can be sold without prosecution from 30 to ten grammes. But these are delaying tactics. The drive to decriminalise, and then to legalise, cannabis has a fresh and, perhaps, unstoppable momentum. People no longer buy the favourite argument of American drug enforcement that marijuana is "a gateway drug which leads users on to cocaine and heroin". They are starting to understand that each drug is different. In any case, it is clear that current drugs policy is not based on fears for people's health but on ideas about morality and public order. In a couple of months' time, Release, always quick to size up the public mood, will publish a new book, The Case fo r Cannabis, explaining in detail what legalisation would mean. Mike Goodman recalls a seminar for senior police officers in London: "One senior officer said, quite openly, that he doesn't target suppliers of cannabis in his area because it's not a priori ty for him any more - and it's not a priority because he doesn't believe they're doing any harm to the community." A turning-point?
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