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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

Why is Switzerland called Switzerland?

“Switzerland” is an anglicised version of the country’s original name in German (Schweiz). Where did this originate?

The origin of Switzerland’s multilingual name is rooted in history.
Switzerland has several names but only one flag, here in Geneva’s Old Town. Photo by Philipp Potocnik on Unsplash

The English name for Switzerland comes from the German ‘Schweiz’, which is also known as Suisse in French, Svizzera in Italian and Svizra in Romansh – the other official languages of Switzerland. 

But where did that name come from? As far as we know, has its origins in events that shaped its history throughout many centuries. Is it possible that Helvetic tribes that inhabited this land long ago picked the name at random and then voted on it in a referendum?

We cannot know that for sure (especially the referendum part, as direct democracy is a more recent development), but here is what we do know: this name wasn’t just picked out of a helmet.

The theories are many and varied, with nobody quite sure exactly where the name came from. 

Where did Switzerland get its name?

It appears that there are as many theories about the origin of Switzerland’s name as there are names for the country. 

As Wikipedia tells us, the name might have derived from the Celtic word “Sveit” as early as in year 972. The name ‘Schweiz’ was first mentioned in a legal document in 1415

Another version has it that the country’s Germanic name, Schweiz, is based on Schwyz, one of the three cantons that in 1291 formed the nucleus of modern-day Switzerland (and remains a canton to this day). 

The thirteen cantons which formerly made up the Swiss Confederacy. Image: Wikicommons

But that’s not all. Documents from the 15th and 16th centuries suggest a link with Suit / Swit / Schwyt / Switer,  a leader of a tribe that migrated here from Sweden — which could explain why some people think Sweden and Switzerland are the same country (spoiler alert: they are not).

However, yet another historical record suggests that the name originates from “Switzer”, an “obsolete term for a Swiss person which was in use during the 16th to 19th centuries”.

In the very least, this explanation would give the English-language version of the name, Switzer-land, some credibility. 

Historians have given perhaps the most credence to this explanation, with some arguing that the term Swiz or Switz was actually an insult for the armies which came from the regions of modern day Switzerland used by armies from modern day Germany and Austria. 

Initially, the frequently victorious Swiss armies – remember this was long before Swiss neutrality – hated this word, but began to call themselves Swiss out of spite. 

EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland always neutral?

Over time, the name caught on and the insult value diminished, until 1803 when the Helvetic Republic was officially named the Swiss Confederation. 

Let this be a lesson to anyone who doesn’t like their nickname or feels insulted by what someone calls them – you can embrace it and use it against them, like a clever judo move. 

One country, many names

What about the French, Italian and Romansh names for Switzerland?

Since German (or a form thereof) was the only language spoken in the country in the early days, Switzerland  has been called “Schweiz” the longest.

As French and Italian-speaking regions began to join the confederation over the next centuries, they brought their own linguistic versions of the country’s name: Soisses and Suysses were the early French names (which eventually evolved into Suisse), while Sviceri / Suyzeri morphed into Svizzera in Italian.

READ MORE: How did Switzerland become a country with four languages?

However, throughout many centuries, the country that is now Switzerland / Schweiz / Suisse / Svizzera / Svizra had been known simply as the Helvetic Confederation, or Helvetia.

The abbreviation of its original Latin version, Confœderatio Helvetica — CH — is still commonly used in Swiss postal codes, stamps, car stickers, and internet addresses.

This is also reflected in other languages, such as Romanian, where Switzerland is known as Elveția. 

 Image: Wikicommons.

Few foreigners are aware that Helvetia / Helvetic Confederation and Switzerland are one and the same country, though hopefully many more know that Switzerland and Sweden are not.

READ MORE: Why does Switzerland use ‘CH’ and what does it mean?

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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

UPDATE: What are Switzerland’s rules for cannabis consumption?

Switzerland has a complicated set of rules for both medical and recreational cannabis consumption. Here's what you need to know.

UPDATE: What are Switzerland's rules for cannabis consumption?

Long prohibited and seen as a gateway drug with potentially dangerous impacts, countries across the globe have begun legalising cannabis in recent years. 

While the legalisation for medical use has been widespread, there have also been successful legalisation campaigns in several countries. 

The situation in Switzerland is also in flux and has been complicated by a range of recent changes.

Whether referred to as cannabis, marijuana or hemp, Switzerland’s Narcotics Act qualifies it as “a psychoactive substance”, with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) being its most intoxicating ingredient.

The law specifies that “only THC is controlled under the Narcotics Act. Other active substances like cannabidiol (CBD) are not subject to the Narcotics Act as they do not have comparable psychoactive effects”.

Here’s what you need to know. 

Switzerland has legalised medical marijuana 

As of August 1st, the use of cannabis for medical purposes will be allowed in Switzerland

Patients who are medically prescribed the drug will no longer need to seek exceptional permission from the health ministry, as was the case prior to August 1st. 

Demand for cannabis-based treatments has risen sharply, with the health ministry issuing 3,000 exceptional authorisations in 2019.

The government “intends to facilitate access to cannabis for medical use for patients” and was therefore lifting the ban on its use for that purpose, it said in a statement.

The previous procedure involved “tedious administrative procedures”, said the ministry. “Sick people must be able to access these medicines without excessive bureaucracy.”

As of August 1st, “the decision as to whether a cannabis medicinal product is to be used therapeutically will be made by the doctor together with the patient” the government wrote

The sale and consumption of cannabis for non-medical purposes will remain prohibited.

READ MORE: Switzerland to lift ban on medical use cannabis

The new regulations could benefit thousands of people suffering from severe chronic pain, it added, including those with cancer and multiple sclerosis.

READ ALSO: Why Basel is about to become Switzerland’s marijuana capital

The law change will also mean that the cultivation, processing, manufacture and trade of cannabis for medical use will be subject to the Swissmedic regulatory authority, just as with other narcotics for medical use such as cocaine, methadone and morphine.

Legality of recreational cannabis is determined by the THC

THC of at least 1 percent is generally prohibited in Switzerland and use of products with this (or higher) content may be punishable by a 100-franc fine.

Of course, if someone is determined to smoke it, 100 francs may not be much a deterrent — but that’s a subject for another article.

“By contrast, possession of up to 10g of cannabis for personal use is not considered a criminal offence”, the law states, as long as it is not used by or sold to minors.

Italy's constitutional court has blocked the latest efforts to legalise cannabis.

Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP.

And, as with nearly everything else in decentralised Switzerland, “there are still considerable differences between cantons regarding implementation of the fixed penalty procedure”.

However, “cannabis flowers intended for smoking with a high proportion of cannabidiol (CBD) and less than 1 percent THC can be sold and purchased legally”, according to the legislation. 

That’s because, unlike the THC, cannabidiol “does not have a psychoactive effect”.

In other words, low-content THC and CBD will not give the “high” that recreational users seek.

When will Switzerland legalise recreational cannabis?

Currently, small amounts of recreational cannabis are tolerated in Switzerland.

“The decisive factor for classification as a banned drug is how much THC is contained in a cannabis product. If the THC content exceeds one per cent, the product is prohibited. Hashish is prohibited regardless of its THC content.”

As noted by the Swiss government, “If you are caught in possession of a small amount of cannabis (no more than 10 grams) for your own consumption, you will not be fined. In addition, if you supply (but do not sell) up to 10 grams to an adult, e.g. when sharing joints, you will not be fined.”

“If you are caught using cannabis, you may be given a fixed penalty fine of 100 francs.”

In June 2020, the National Council approved a plan to start cannabis trials for recreational use.

The experiments are to be carried out in Switzerland’s larger cities. Basel, Bern, Biel, Geneva and Zurich have all expressed interest in conducting the trials. 

The study seeks to find out how the market for cannabis works – and how to combat the black market. The social effects of legalisation will also be examined. 

At this point, no decisions have been made. However, Swiss authorities have set certain conditions in case recreational use is approved.

The National Council said if cannabis were to be legalised, it must be locally grown in Switzerland – and it must be organic. 

Health Minister Alain Berset noted that legalisation should benefit Swiss farmers even though “very few producers have experience in this area”.

READ MORE: Switzerland backs recreational cannabis trials – with one condition

Can you grow your own cannabis?

In truth, a number of people cultivate marijuana plants on their balconies or in their (secluded) gardens for their own personal use.

As it turns out, the law allows it, as long as it is a variety of the plant that does not have a narcotic effect — that is, the THC content must be less than 1 percent. 

By the same token, cannabis-based products with THC content of below 1 percent can be brought into Switzerland from abroad.

However, the import rules differ depending on the type of product  it is — flowers, seeds, extracts, oils, or other goods.

How much cannabis is consumed in Switzerland each year?

Precise numbers are hard to come by, but according to an article in Le Temps, which based its information on a medical study, about 100 tonnes are consumed in the country annually.

Cannabis remains the largest market in terms of volume: it represents 85 percent of drugs consumed in Switzerland, netting between 340, 000 and 500,000 francs per year.

READ MORE: Drugs and alcohol: Just how much do the Swiss consume?

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