By Christoph Schindler, GREA  - Groupement Romand d'Etudes des Addictions

While Prohibition remains in place in Switzerland, law enforcement is rather progressive compared to other latitudes: Using cannabis in public spaces attracts an administrative fine of 100 Swiss Francs (approx. USD$110), and the possession of up to 10 grammes is decriminalised. Despite its illegality, some 300,000 people of the country’s total population of 8.6 million currently use cannabis.

In September 2020, the Swiss parliament adopted a modification to the Federal Act on Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances. The change provides a legal framework for a pilot project that would see legal and government-controlled supply initiatives established in 2021.

These pilot projects will be:

  • Restricted to cities having expressed an interest in joining the pilot.
  • Of a 5-year duration, with an option for a 2-year extension if requested by the local authority.
  • Limited to a total number of up to 5,000 adult participants (minimum 18 years old).
  • Available to people who can demonstrate that they are already using cannabis, and who agree to medical follow-up during the pilot project.
  • Prioritising, the use of local and organic cannabis, where possible.

The projects are expected to provide data on the use of cannabis by the Swiss and contribute to substantiating any potential future regulations.

A few days after its passing, a complimentary parliamentary initiative was submitted by a member of the National Council (the lower house of the Swiss legislature). The initiative aims to flesh out a political response to the regulation of cannabis, proposing standards similar to those in place for alcohol. This initiative responds directly to a statement by the Federal Council (the Swiss executive), which stated, in April 2018, that:

The current ban on cannabis in the narcotics law, which aims to protect the population and promote abstinence, brings insufficient results. Despite this prohibition, consumption is not decreasing, the black market is growing, there is no quality control, and consumer safety is not guaranteed. Moreover, repression, which mobilises enormous resources, is not very effective.” FC 23.05.2018

The parliamentary initiative seeks to align itself with recommendations made by the Swiss Federal Commission on Addiction, which had, in 2019, recommended the legal regulation of the cannabis market as a whole, from cultivation to trade to use. The initiative proposes to:

  • Take into consideration the Swiss “4-pillar approach” to drug policy (prevention, treatment, harm reduction and law enforcement).
  • Instruct authorities to control the production and trade of cannabis, in particular for the purpose of protecting young people and consumers, as well as informing.
  • Separate medical and non-medical markets.
  • Dry up the black market by ending prohibition.
  • Introduce a tax and regulate advertising.
  • Provide a framework for the production for personal use.

The text of the initiative relies on a regulation model developed by a multi-stakeholder forum, Cannabis Consensus Switzerland, a coalition representing five different interest groups: political parties, youth parties, prevention & healthcare specialists, the economic & environmental sectors, and networks of people who use drugs.. The coalition works toward bringing an alternative consensus to the current Swiss policy on cannabis, which maintains prohibition.

The regulation model by the coalition is based on two key dimensions: the protection of the population and the regulation of the market. It comprises the following aspects:

Protection of the population

  1. Protection of youth.
  2. Promotion of harm reduction in relation to consumption.
  3. Consumer information.
  4. Prevention and repression of conducts and specific work-related activities under the influence of cannabis.
  5. Reduction of advertising and the presence of cannabis in the public space.
Control and regulation of the market
  1. Control of the production and guaranteed traceability.
  2. Separated markets for medical and non-medical products.
  3. Sale of cannabis-related products in specialised stores.
  4. Taxation of cannabis to finance supportive measures.
  5. Monitoring of production for personal use.

A handful of cities, including Berne, Geneva, Zurich, Basel and Biel have already expressed interest in joining the pilot projects, mirroring interest in a similar pilot project in Dutch municipalities.

The pilot projects in Switzerland and the Netherlands, as well as Luxembourg’s regulatory plans, signal Europe will not be spared by the growing global trend towards regulation. The IDPC network recently launched Principles for the responsible legal regulation of cannabis, which seeks to ensure these moves serve the public interest, contribute to protect rights and advance social justice, and pre-empt corporate capture.