Lawmakers in Swizterland’s capital city of Bern want to legalize cocaine for adults to buy, initially through a pilot program. However, wider political approval will be required to make it happen.
Bern City Council has been considering a policy change to allow a “scientifically supervised pilot scheme trial,” as Reuters reported. “The war on drugs has failed, and we have to look at new ideas,” said Eva Chen, a member of the Alternative Left Bern party. “Control and legalization can do better than mere repression.”
Chen introduced the measure in the Bern City Council in May, and it was approved in a 43-18 vote the following month. It calls on Bern to work with other cities to develop a legal cocaine pilot, and to work with the Federal Council (Switzerland’s executive branch) to approve it. The process may include creating an “interdisciplinary working group.” The city will gather evidence and publish a report studying impacts of legal cocaine sales.
“A far more effective measure against ‘dealing’ than a repressive drug policy characterized by racial profiling.”
“Huge efforts are being made against the people who are at the lowest end of the retail chain,” Chen’s proposal reads, citing recent law enforcement raids. “Those who profit from drug trafficking on a medium and large scale are left out. This means that at most the symptoms are combated.”
Chen points to the example of regulated cannabis sales, already operating in Switzerland in a limited fashion, as a role model. Launched in March, a trial in Basel saw 400 adult participants chosen to purchase cannabis from pharmacies for nonmedical use. The two-year trial is expanding to six more cities, including Zürich, Geneva and Lausanne, as governments gather data to inform future policy.
A similar pilot with cocaine could “lead to simplified prevention and better control options for cocaine and be a far more effective measure against ‘dealing’ than a repressive drug policy characterized by racial profiling,” states Chen’s proposal.
Bern Municipal Council—a separate body from the City Council—did not approve the proposal, however, citing potential harms of cocaine use and a perceived risk of jeopardizing public support for cannabis sales.
“I think it’s an incredibly positive move. It suggests a shift in the mood of what elected officials are willing to discuss.”
There’s a long road ahead before legal cocaine sales could become a reality, but some experts are encouraged by Bern City Council’s groundbreaking move.
“It is auspicious and promising to see city governments take seriously the question of how to respond to drugs in a way that supports communities’ health and welfare,” Juan Fernández Ochoa, communications officer for the International Drug Policy Consortium, told Filter. “I think it’s an incredibly positive move, highly contested, and there’s many obstacles ahead for this to become an implemented practice. It suggests a shift in the mood of what elected officials are willing to discuss.”
Switzerland is no stranger to innovative drug policy. It has more robust harm reduction services, and more humane drug laws, than most European and North American counterparts.
According to Harm Reduction International, Switzerland is one of the few countries to provide access to most vital harm reduction services—including sterile syringes, opioid use disorder medications, drug-checking services, safe consumption sites and, famously, heroin-assisted treatment. Switzerland’s approach, including decriminalization of personal drug use, has led to reduced overdose deaths and HIV and hepatitis C diagnoses.
Zobel doesn’t think the country’s experience with addressing opioids is easily transferrable to cocaine.
Of course, not all of these measures are applicable to cocaine. There is no approved medication for cocaine use disorder, for example, nor an antidote for cocaine “overamps,” though some manufacturers are trying to develop one.
In July, the organization Addiction Switzerland suggested that crack cocaine use is rising rapidly in Geneva, the country’s second largest city. A local “addiction shelter” told SwissInfo that people struggling with crack use now represent 62 percent of those seeking treatment.
Frank Zobel, Addiction Switzerland’s deputy director and research lead, has cautioned about the effects of legalizing cocaine. He’s noted that cocaine prices in Switzerland have decreased, while purity has increased. And he doesn’t think the country’s experience with addressing opioids is easily transferrable to cocaine. “These drugs, their effects and their modes of consumption are very different, and the answer cannot be transposed as is,” he told 20 Minutes. “Given the high toxicity of cocaine, doctors are reluctant to prescribe it. Which does not mean that we should not look for a solution to support cities.”
Cocaine users have many different profiles, Zobel has noted—from people who use occasionally in party settings, to those with more chaotic use patterns and facing challenges like lack of housing.
“It’s a substance which is much more difficult to handle than a substance like cannabis that we have known for a very long time, and where the problems exist we know them better and we control them better,” he told a Swiss TV station. Other Swiss commenters have been even more critical of the idea of regulating cocaine.
But it’s cocaine prohibition that deserves criticism, believes Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst at Transform Drug Policy Foundation. Despite harsh and harmful interdiction efforts, demand for the drug has remained resilient around the world. In the detailed guide “How to Regulate Stimulants,” he and his colleagues explored different way such drugs could be legally sold and distributed.
“Prohibition and the war on drugs makes the product more dangerous, because you don’t know how strong it is and whether it’s been adulterated,” Rolles told Filter. “There’s no information on the package about safety, where to get help, how to regulate your dosage, the risks of polydrug use; and there’s no information from the vendors, because you typically buy it on street corners or in nightclubs. If you bought it from a professional vendor, they would be qualified and required to provide you with harm reduction risk and safety advice.”
“It would look more like a pharmacy. We need to keep commercial and profit incentives out of this market.”
Rolles acknowledges that cocaine use can carry risks; legalization, he said, is not an encouragement or endorsement of use, but a practical way to improve safety by offering harm reduction services and health education in broad daylight.
A legal market for cocaine would require a flexible approach, he continued—one that accounts for differences between powder cocaine, crack or even coca leaf, as well as whether people snort, smoke or shoot the drug. And he’s opposed to a commercialized legalization model.
“It would look more like a pharmacy,” Rolles said. “We need to keep commercial and profit incentives out of this market. It’s too risky a product. The idea [is] having a government monopoly that would sell unbranded products with clearly labeled dosage and health and harm reduction information on the packaging, from a pharmacy-style outlet with a trained, licensed vendor that would give advice on [risks]. It would be available to adults in a rationed quantity.”
Photograph of Bern street by Louis via Pexels