Will Switzerland’s Latest Regulatory Rx for Legal Cannabis Work?

By Oliver Bennett, Special Contributor to New Frontier Data

As Europe moves in fits and starts toward a more liberal scenario for recreational cannabis, Switzerland has become the latest country to roll towards legalization after last month getting a formal endorsement within the National Council.

By a 13-11 margin, the Health Commission brings Switzerland a crucial stage closer to legalizing adult-use cannabis. In September 2020, the Swiss Parliament passed an amendment to the Federal Act on Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances, providing the  legal bedrock for conducting pilot trials for legal cannabis, albeit with strict limitations and state oversight.

Switzerland’s recent initiative follows the legal change, with the immediate effect being to approve the new cannabis pilot program, in which 5,000 registered users – already aficionados of cannabis known to the government – will be given legal access to organic, Swiss-produced cannabis. That move affords Switzerland historic status as the first European country with a legal adult-use cannabis supply chain.

The trial paves the way for a fuller consumer environment for cannabis, with products allegedly modelled on Canada’s legal cannabis program. The products will feature THC content capped at 20%, with child-proof packaging with prominently labelled safety and ingredient information. The trial is mandated to run 10 years.

Switzerland, similar to the U.K. in being independent from the European Union, has for quite some time maintained a liberal mentality towards cannabis and historically progressive policies. In 2012 it decriminalized cannabis possession under 10 grams, and though users caught in possession had to pay a fine of CHF100 ($110 USD), it considered a civic offence like a traffic violation, not one leaving a criminal record. Though many in the conservative country objected to the law at the time (five years earlier Swiss voters largely rejected a proposal to legalize cannabis), it showed the direction of the country in terms of social acceptance of cannabis, and the need to regulate it.

By 2016 the key Swiss cities of Zurich, Basel, Bern, and Geneva were setting up cannabis clubs. In 2017 the selling of hemp inflorescences with a low THC content (i.e., below 1%) was made legal in Switzerland, following a 2011 law deeming hemp with low THC as no longer considered narcotic. That combustible product became known on the market as “cannabis light” or “CBD cannabis” and, drawing comparisons to decaffeinated coffee, a network of specialist shops grew.

The market for the product has not gone as well as Swiss producers had expected. But Switzerland, with a strong pharmaceutical sector contributing some 30% of its exports, has a strong reputation for research and development, as well as high levels of trust in its biotech sectors. Its cannabis industry could build on this reputation. Already, Switzerland, being a European country that allows a threshold of 1.0%  THC against the majority EU threshold of 0.2%, is said to provide the majority of the CBD on sale in the U.K., Europe’s largest CBD market.

It remains true that not all Swiss institutions are quite so forward-thinking. Despite the trend for reforms on the continent, the Credit Suisse Group investment banking firm was recently reported as telling customers that it will not handle stock transactions for U.S. cannabis companies, leading to a sell-off of cannabis stocks.

The latest Swiss experiment, as with cannabis trials in other countries, is also seen in terms of harm reduction – as a bulwark against illegal cannabis and its attendant social dangers. It is estimated that some 500,000 Swiss regularly use cannabis; as Switzerland’s Federal Office of Public Health said, current cannabis prohibitions are almost useless, as “despite this ban, consumption is high, the black market is thriving, and users’ safety is not guaranteed.” As elsewhere, Switzerland hopes to design out criminality through the policy, which the trial factors into account.

Switzerland has demonstrated some interesting policy precedents. Between 1986 and 1992, the city of Zurich implemented a permissive drug policy to decriminalise and thus control heroin, tolerating open-air drug use in the city’s Park Platzspitz – which became infamously known as “needle park”. While it was closed after six years, and generally perceived as a failure, by 2008 Zurich began a radical health policy to offer prescription heroin to addicts under medical supervision at clinics in the city.

While cannabis and heroin are by no means equivalent, such initiatives show a willingness in Switzerland to confront aspects of drug law, with a view to harm-reduction and the control of social problems.

For all these reasons, legislators across Europe will be looking at Switzerland as the trial continues, assessing closely its premise to offer “a scientific basis for the future regulation of cannabis.”