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CANNABIS

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.

Cannabis use will be legal for medical purposes in Switzerland. (Photo by JOEL SAGET/AFP)
Cannabis use will be legal for medical purposes in Switzerland. (Photo by JOEL SAGET/AFP)

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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For members

HEALTH

EXPLAINED: How Switzerland wants to cut soaring healthcare costs

Swiss health costs have been rising in recent years, with further spikes, including in insurance premiums, seen as inevitable. The government is proposing measures to counter this upward trend.

EXPLAINED: How Switzerland wants to cut soaring healthcare costs

Based on the information released by Santésuisse, an umbrella group for health insurance companies, an overall increase of around 4 percent for 2023 will be the norm.

Unfortunately for the consumers, who are already hard-hit by rising energy costs, premiums for compulsory health insurance will likely rise by an average of 5 percent in the fall, according to online price comparison site, Comparis.

And many people could even see their premiums soar by more than 10 percent in 2023 — the sharpest hike in premiums in 20 years.

The exact amounts of premiums for all policyholders will be released by the end of October.

The price hikes are not a new phenomenon per se: over the past 20 years, costs have risen at twice the rate of economic growth, resulting in health insurance premiums that are 90 percent higher than in 2002.

READ MORE: How spiralling costs are jeopardising Switzerland’s healthcare system

Why have these costs been increasing so much?

Part of the reason is the fact that people in Switzerland have a high life expectancy, but as they get older, they tend to suffer from chronic, cost-intensive diseases.

The more recent hikes can be attributed to higher medical costs incurred during the two years of coronavirus pandemic, estimated to cost insurers over one billion francs so far, not even taking into account about 265 million spent for Covid vaccinations in 2021.

Add to that the cost (paid for by the government) of Covid tests, as well as booster shots administered in 2022, and those still to be given once Switzerland rolls out second doses in 2023.

How will the government cut these costs?

Santésuisse has been urging the Federal Council to implement a range of reforms to reduce costs and ensure that not so many are passed on to consumers. 

On Wednesday, authorities announced a package of measures aimed at controlling costs. “These measures will improve medical care and contain rising costs in the healthcare system”, the Federal Council said.

Coordinated networks

These care networks are seen as a way to reduce unnecessary medical services. 

“They bring together health professionals from several disciplines to provide ‘all-in-one’ medical care. They improve coordination throughout the treatment chain, for example when various specialists are caring for an elderly person with several chronic diseases”, Federal Council said in a statement.

Hospitals, pharmacies, and various therapists would be attached to the network, and all treatments “will be invoiced at once, as if it were a single supplier”.

Right now, all service providers invoice insurance carriers separately, which adds to administrative costs; the new system is also believed to provide a better oversight and control, and eliminate unnecessary or redundant medical treatments, Health Minister Alain Berset said during a press conference in Bern on Wednesday.

Faster and cheaper access to medicines

The government also wants to guarantee “fast and as inexpensive as possible access to expensive innovative medicines”.

To achieve this, it wants to “anchor in the law” an already widely-used practice: to conclude pricing agreements with pharmaceutical companies. It would mean that drug manufacturers would have to reimburse a portion of the price to insurers.

“This measure makes it possible to guarantee rapid access to these drugs, while limiting their price”, authorities said.

Electronic invoicing

Another measure will require all providers of inpatient and outpatient services to send their invoices to insurance companies in electronic form — seen as a quicker, more effective and cheaper way to transmit billing information.

These measures “will make it possible to curb the rise in costs,” the Federal Council said, adding that “it is not yet possible to estimate the concrete extent of these savings, which would depend on how the health system will implement the measures”.

It is now up to the MPs to debate these proposals.

READ MORE: Why Swiss health premiums are set to rise — and what you can do about it

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