Heidi high - Swiss in a fix over legal pot

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Autumn in Ticino. All around, the fruits of the season are being harvested. Grapes are pressed to make Ticinese Merlot; funghi porcini are gathered from forests to be served as an expensive delicacy in restaurants; chestnuts fall, to be roasted on every fireplace. And thousands of pounds of cannabis is harvested, to be sold as pot-pourri.

Autumn in Ticino. All around, the fruits of the season are being harvested. Grapes are pressed to make Ticinese Merlot; funghi porcini are gathered from forests to be served as an expensive delicacy in restaurants; chestnuts fall, to be roasted on every fireplace. And thousands of pounds of cannabis is harvested, to be sold as pot-pourri.

According to Swiss federal law, it is strictly forbidden to use cannabis as a narcotic - but it is perfectly legal to grow, possess and openly sell cannabis in strengths high enough to be deemed narcotic. Swiss citizens may purchase sachets of cannabis from any one of 150 cannabis outlets throughout Switzerland, so long as they intend to use it solely to perfume their homes. Each sachet of pot-pourri carries a warning that its contents are not to be smoked or ingested.

One-third of these cannabis outlets are situated in Ticino, an Italian-speaking canton, and it is here that the country's bizarre approach to cannabis policy is most acute.

Swiss police estimate that in 1998, approximately 100 metric tonnes of "drug-quality" cannabis was harvested in Switzerland, ending up in the little sachets, while 7.2 metric tonnes, and 313,258 cannabis plants, were confiscated. There is no rhyme or reason to the enforcement of cannabis prohibition in Switzerland and, as in Britain, there is great discrepancy in prosecution for possession of cannabis from region to region.

In 1997, the national government commissioned a report from the Swiss Federal Commission for Drug Issues. The commission - made up of prominent members of the financial, medical, academic and law-enforcement world - has just published its findings.

The commission states that cannabis policy must reflect prevailing moral values and attitudes to civil liberties. The report concludes that using criminal law to dictate the behaviour of an individual user "is repugnant to the fundamental values of a legal system founded on personal liberties, and is therefore illegitimate".

Furthermore, the commission found, the effectiveness of cannabis prohibition no longer holds even any "symbolic value". The report suggests that the criminal prosecution of cannabis users is "an arbitrary act of coercion".

Switzerland is a signatory to several drugs treaties, though it has yet to ratify the 1988 UN Vienna Convention - the most recent international law for drug prohibition. Decriminalisation, it is now widely thought, may arrive by 2003.

Meanwhile, in Ticino, a bizarre game of cat and mouse between cannabis producers and sellers and the police continues. Recently, one cannabis shop-owner was jailed during local political elections, then freed without charge; another cannabis farmer had his field laid siege to by police, and was forced to convert the plant into a perfume under their noses. But elsewhere in Ticino, it is business as usual.

While the Swiss government wants fast prosecutions for the possession of cannabis, regional police are left to interpret precisely what this might mean. Geography and politics adds to this confusion. Ticino has a long tradition of smuggling, due to its proximity to Italy, and the rise of "drug tourism". As a consequence, cannabis policy as interpreted in Ticino seems to respond more to commercial pressures from Italy rather than the moral rectitude of the Swiss government. Toke on a pot-pourri, anyone?

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