OPINION: Why Switzerland’s gradual legalisation of cannabis is a positive move

As the first pilot projects begin in Zurich and Basel allowing the sale of cannabis for recreational use, Clare O’Dea welcomes this most recent step towards full legalisation. Buying cannabis from a Swiss pharmacy is preferable to getting friendly with your local dealer, she writes.

OPINION: Why Switzerland's gradual legalisation of cannabis is a positive move
A participant competes against the clock during the Joint Roll Contest at CannaTrade 2021, International Cannabis Expo. Is Switzerland's gradual legalisation of cannabis a good thing?(Photo by STEFAN WERMUTH / AFP)

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.

READ ALSO: Swiss region to test legalising cannabis

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.

READ ALSO: What are Switzerland’s rules on cannabis consumption?

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.

Member comments

  1. The article seems to vary between discussing recreational use and medical use. Is the program in Zurich and Basel for recreational or medical use?

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OPINION: Why Switzerland needs to scrap its fabled 1,000 franc notes

If the Americans can get by with $100 bills, the British manage with £50 and EU citizens now mostly €200, why do the Swiss need such a large denomination? The answer is, they don’t, writes Clare O'Dea, as she explains why it should be binned.

OPINION: Why Switzerland needs to scrap its fabled 1,000 franc notes

The existence of the 1,000-franc note, so blatantly open to misuse, is justified with platitudes about the Swiss liking cash.

Apparently the 1,000-franc note is quite pretty but I can’t say for sure as I’ve never seen or touched one. With the exception of Singapore and Brunei, no other country sees fit to issue such a large-denomination note for the simple reason that it’s not needed for legitimate business.

Financial secrecy is obviously a big part of the appeal of the 1,000-franc note. To say otherwise is not really credible. Cash in this condensed form is anonymous, untraceable, easily transportable, easily concealed.

As Bradley Birkenfeld said in a 2015 CNBC interview, “I mean you could put half a million in your pocket, no problem”. Remember that name? Birkenfeld was the (in)famous UBS whistleblower who exposed the bank’s shady practices to the US authorities in 2007, triggering the dismantling of Swiss banking secrecy.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) explains that the big note is used as a “store of value” to a considerable degree. What does that mean? The SNB’s own research shows that most people keep less than 1,000 francs in cash at home. Are we talking about storing value under the mattress or in a safe deposit box?  Who does that and for what reason?

Look, I’m sure there are people with 1,000 notes squirrelled around the place who run their finances in a totally clean and honest way. The latest SNB survey on payment methods found that half of the population had been in possession of at least one 1,000-franc note over the previous two years. The note is especially popular among men over the age of 55

But inevitably there are tax evaders, money launderers and other criminals who find the big notes come in very handy. The €500 note was scrapped after 17 years mainly because of its popularity with criminal gangs in the EU and beyond, to the extent that it had become an embarrassment.

The €500 note is still legal tender but no new notes have been issued in the euro zone since 2019, following the decision by the European Central Bank. The move came after serious concerns were expressed by academics, international police agencies and EU finance ministers.

When production of the €500 note officially ceased, the largest denomination note accounted for 20 per cent of the value of all euro notes in circulation. Doesn’t it seem odd that 60 per cent of the value of all francs in circulation are in 1,000-franc notes? That’s 9.4 per cent of all physical notes. Something doesn’t add up.

I have heard people argue that 1,000-franc notes are popular for big expenses, like buying a car or jewellery. Or for paying big bills over the counter at the post office (this I have seen). Rumour has it that farmers like to buy livestock with the purple polymer and paper mix. Each to his own.

But these financial practices are fast becoming dated and are anyway not common enough to explain the volume of 1,000 notes in circulation. Yes, it’s official: cash is no longer king in Switzerland.

As recently as 2017, some 70 per cent of non-recurring payments were made in cash, purchases like clothes, the supermarket shopping, or restaurant meals, according to the SNB survey on payment methods. This had reduced to 43 per cent by 2020, the last time the survey was carried out.

The most recent data on payment behaviour comes from the Swiss Payment Monitor, a joint research project between the University of St. Gallen and the ZHAW Zurich University of Applied Sciences, which reported in August of this year.

The study found that the debit card remains the most frequently used form of payment for face-to-face business (34.8 per cent), followed by cash (33.2). Credit cards are less popular at 16.5 per cent. Meanwhile mobile payments are growing in popularity, increasing share from 1.5 per cent of transactions to 11.2 per cent over the past five years. 

What this boils down to is that people are perfectly adept at paying electronically in all kinds of ways and the role of the 1,000-note in retail or person-to-person purchases is far from essential.

While we’re on the subject of money, this month saw the release of the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report, in which Switzerland emerged as the world’s richest country. The average wealth of adult residents in this country is 672,508 francs, up 5.4 per cent from the previous year. Assets include stocks and shares, pensions savings, and property.

In case you’re feeling left out, the median wealth per adult in Switzerland is 165,266 francs. That means half of the population possesses less than this amount. The figures are skewed upwards by a smallish number of mega rich individuals, with a little help from the 1.1 million millionaires in Switzerland. My guess is that these two groups have the most use for the 1,000-franc notes.

Reading between the lines, I sense some national pride in the attachment to this world-beating high denomination note. Swiss people like to hold cash – that’s our way. We also like our privacy – so what!

Not to spoil the fun, but all cultures need to be aware that just because they’ve always done something a certain way does not mean the practice has merit and is worth preserving. I recommend taking a long, hard look at the legitimacy of the fabled 1,000-franc note.