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Soft drugs

The use of drugs, both soft and hard, has been a focus of public attention since the late 1960s. By far the most widely used drug is cannabis, and Switzerland has one of the highest rates of cannabis use in the world, along with Britain and the US.

However, a survey of 11-15 year-olds conducted for the Federal Health Office in 2006 showed that consumption had fallen from the peak recorded in the previous survey taken in 2002.

The 2006 survey showed that 34% of boys and 27% of girls aged 15 admitted having tried cannabis at least once. This was down from 46% and 37% respectively in 2002, and was the first drop recorded in 20 years.

Researchers attributed the fall in part to greater awareness of the dangers of long-term consumption, stricter measures taken by parents and schools, and the closure of a number of shops selling it.

About one fifth of people aged between 15 and 64 have tried cannabis at least once in their lives, and about one quarter of those who have tried it continue to use it.

There are estimated to be some 5 - 600,000 cannabis users in the country as a whole, who get through some 100 tonnes of hash and marijuana every year.

The legal situation

The popularity of cannabis has led to greater tolerance, and many Swiss people are in favour of the complete decriminalisation of its use (not its sale). In 2003 the government had plans to change the law in this way, but the idea raised such a furore in parliament that it was shelved. Supporters of decriminalisation then proposed a popular initiative entitled "For a rational cannabis policy with effective protection of young people." Since they managed to collect 100,000 signatures, the initiative will be put a nationwide vote.

Not everyone is in favour of decriminalisation. The authorities launched a crackdown on hemp growers and sellers in Canton Ticino in 2003, which dismantled 60 cultivation sites and closed 70 shops - and earned Switzerland good marks from the UN, which had previously been critical of Swiss drugs policy.

In 2004 softer measures were announced in north western Switzerland, with a joint Swiss-German information project to help young people give up smoking cannabis.

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