Switzerland has been moving tentatively in the direction of the legalisation of cannabis for several years. This has created a contradiction where personal recreational use is tolerated but the wider trade is still illegal. The anomaly is bound to end eventually and the pilot projects are part of that process.
Also part of the process is the relaxation of access to cannabis for medical purposes. Starting from August, Swiss doctors are permitted to prescribe cannabis to their patients. Previously, the system was much more restrictive with patients forced to overcome significant bureaucratic hurdles to be granted a licence to consume.
Medical cannabis is known to be beneficial to people suffering from chronic pain and muscle spasms. As a young adult, I considered procuring cannabis to help my father ease his multiple sclerosis symptoms. We talked about it but were ultimately put off by the taboo of illegality. I’m glad Swiss families don’t have this worry any more.
The new legislation sets an important precedent, establishing a legal basis for medical cannabis to be imported and exported, including plants, resins and oils, and making the approval process for cultivation in Switzerland more straightforward.
Great care has been taken to make the pilot studies seem as unthreatening as possible. The trials have been authorised by the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) as a fact-finding mission to provide a scientific basis for future regulations.
The FOPH answers a hundred-and-one questions about the trials on its website. As if they were distributing dynamite and not a product that is consumed by hundreds of thousands of Swiss residents every week.
We are told that users in the trials will be able to legally purchase various cannabis-related products, including edibles, the quality of which will be highly regulated. The prices will be roughly in line with the black market.
“As well as receiving product information, participants will be made aware of the risks of cannabis consumption by staff at the points of sale who will be trained accordingly.”
Wouldn’t you prefer if your teenagers accessed the drug in this way rather than behind the bike shed at school? The chances of cannabis becoming a gateway drug must be reduced if consumption is less furtive and the seller doesn’t also have harder delicacies in their other pocket.
The whole process is going to be slow with no results on the trials expected before 2024. Once the trials are completed, the (FOPH) will draw up a report for the Federal Council and things will be taken from there.
In a way, the trials are a stalling tactic to get people used to the idea. Any legal move to make this system the norm would be subject to a popular vote. Because the last two votes on cannabis legalisation ended in a ‘no’, the government wants to be able to say that it’s done its due diligence the next time.
According to the Zurich pilot, ‘Zuri Can’, cannabis is the most widely consumed illegal substance in Switzerland. Banning the drug has not stopped its use. If anything, it has exposed young people (the main users) to the risk of encountering much stronger and more harmful cannabis products.
On the illegal market, you don’t know what you’re buying. One thing you do know is that the cannabis available today is much stronger than what was consumed when the drug was popularised in the 1960s.
Back then, cannabis products contained less than 3 per cent of the psychoactive substance tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). These days, THC levels are commonly between 10 and 20 per cent.
It’s no wonder that excessive or long-term use of the drug can lead to “a greater incidence of critical life problems, associated with serious developmental disorders, social disintegration and addiction”, according to the FOPH.
Considering the history of Swiss policy on hard drugs, it is surprising that cannabis has been handled so tentatively to date.
When the open heroin scene became a national disgrace and humanitarian problem in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a new approach was adopted to manage the problem – with the approval of voters. Heroin addicts who’d tried rehab programmes and failed were allowed to get their fix on prescription.
This policy continues today and is credited with saving many lives by reducing the incidence of overdoses and diseases. It has certainly helped more addicts to live relatively normal lives or even overcome their addiction than would otherwise have been the case.
There is currently a 100-franc fixed penalty fine for cannabis use unless it’s a small amount for your own consumption (less than 10 grams). You are also allowed to grow hemp privately as long as it’s a strain of the plant with less than one per cent THC content.
The increased circulation of medical cannabis that will inevitably follow last month’s change in the law will give us a picture of what the legal supply chain might look like in the future. It’s a great business opportunity for some.
Hopefully, by the time the guinea pigs of Basel, Zurich and the other cities that follow have smoked their last test joint, the public will be ready for cannabis to be dealt with in a more controlled, safe and open way.