Switzerland Switzerland (officially the Swiss Confederation) has a centuries-old tradition of using hemp as a source of fibre, food and medicine. Although Switzerland has at times been obliged to tighten its cannabis laws somewhat in keeping with international law, their approach has traditionally been one of tolerance and lenience.
History of cannabis in Switzerland
According to R C Clarke’s seminal work Cannabis Evolution and Ethnobotany, cannabis was introduced to most of Europe during the period 10,000 – 2,000 BP; ancient remnants discovered in the course of archaeological digs have afforded us some evidence of this, although these examples are often disputed due to the difficulty of distinguishing hemp fibre from flax and nettle. While few such sites exist within the borders of present-day Switzerland, there are plentiful sites that lie well within its historic cultural zone, and it is likely that the entire Central European region—settled throughout its history by wide-ranging Celtic, Roman and Germanic peoples—made considerable use of cannabis for fibre and food purposes over several millennia.
Pollen grain analysis conducted in 1996 indicated that Cannabaceae species were present in the lowland regions of the Swiss Alps from around 6,500 BP onwards. Indeed, presence of Cannabaceae (and cereals, from around 4,000 BP onwards) is used as a marker of civilisation by the researchers (it is generally accepted that intentional cultivation of cannabis typically occurs soon after it is first encountered by indigenous peoples). Cannabaceae levels remained consistently high until around 200 BP, at which point a noticeable decline in Cannabaceae and other crop species occurred. This tallies with the height of the Industrial Revolution, and marks the point at which much intensive agriculture was replaced by grazing livestock.
Macroremains (i.e. those visible to the naked eye, unlike pollen) of cannabis were discovered last year at the Merovingian site at Develier-Courtételle, Canton du Jura (north-west Switzerland), dated to between the 5th and 7th centuries CE. The presence of flax (Linum usitatissimum) and several crops used in dyeing and carding indicates that a developed textile industry was already taking shape at this time. Carding refers to the process of combing plant fibres to detangle and intertwine them; spiky-flowered plants such as teasel (Dipsicacum fullonum) and cocklebur (Xanthium strumarium) provided ideal natural ‘combs’.
Cannabis in medieval Switzerland
From all available evidence, it appears that a lively cannabis industry had developed by the 14th or 15th centuries in much of Europe, with key points of cultivation and use situated in Switzerland, northern Italy, and many parts of France and Germany. This industry was of great economic significance, and remained so until the height of the Industrial Revolution that swept through Europe during the latter part of the 18th century—although it had been embattled for centuries at this point due to hostility from the Roman Catholic Church, who associated use of cannabis and other potentially-intoxicating plants with witchcraft.
It is widely reported that in 1484, a papal bull (entitled Summis desiderantes affectibus) was issued specifically prohibiting use of hemp as a medicine; this edict was also included as a preface to the 1487 Malleus Maleficarum (‘Hammer of the Witches’), the most notorious of the Inquisition-era witch-hunting manuals. It is not clear what the basis for this assertion is, however, as a look through the texts throws up no mention of hemp, cannabis or any substance that could be cannabis.
However, it is well-established that traditional healers and herbalists were a favourite target of the Inquisitors, and that hemp was an integral part of their pharmacopoeia even after its use became societally unacceptable. Switzerland has historically had very close cultural and economic ties with Germany, and much of the medieval pharmacopoeia was documented by scholars at the great universities of Frankfurt, Heidelberg and Basel. In 1539, the German physician Hieronymus Bock published the first edition of his influential herbal, the Kreuterbuch, which contained an illustrated description of cannabis and its medicinal uses; a later edition was printed in Basel in 1625 by his student Tabernaemontanus.
Traditional cannabis rituals in Switzerland
It has been suggested that Swiss folklore incorporated cannabis use in traditional fertility rites, possibly associated with the Germanic goddess Freyja. Worship of Freyja and other Germanic goddesses may have spread to the region that is now the Swiss Plateau with the migration of two tribes, the Alamanni in the north and east and the Burgundians in the west, during the 5th century CE (subsequent to the collapse of the Roman Empire in the region).
The Germanic traditions are relatively well-understood due to the preservation of several key texts written during the early medieval period in Scandinavia; these texts are known as the Eddas and contain several potential references to hemp and an association with the powerful love and fertility goddess Freyja. The traditions of the Gallo-Celtic Helvetii tribe that dominated the Swiss Plateau prior to the Roman expansion were not preserved to the same extent, largely due to lack of a written language; however, several Celtic goddesses bear similarities to Freyja, and it is possible that similar rites occurred in the region long before the arrival of the Germanic goddess herself.
According to several sources, use of hemp in seasonal rites persisted until the 19th century in some rural parts of Switzerland (where hemp stalks were apparently associated with spring and were used to ‘ward off’ the approach of winter) and the wider Germanic world. At this point, the ongoing Christianisation of Europe had destroyed or diluted all but the most tenacious of pagan myths; indeed, although some hemp-related traditions still persist in some parts of Europe to this day, they have largely been disconnected from their intensely religious roots and exist more as local curiosities or eccentricities.
20th and 21st century cannabis legislation in Switzerland
In 1924, cannabis was first outlawed in Switzerland following the passing of the Narcotics Act; this legislation was enacted in order to fulfil obligations resulting from the signing of the League of Nations Treaty, the International Opium Convention of 1912. In 1951 and 1970, the Act was amended; in the latter case, amendments ensured the nation’s fulfilment of the terms of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
Despite these prohibitive pieces of legislation, a lively industry of cannabis cultivation and use has persisted in Switzerland up to the present day, just as in many other countries in Europe and beyond. Realising this, the Swiss Federal Offices of Public Health, Police and Agriculture in 1995 decreed that cannabis could be cultivated without special permission providing it was intended for non-drug purposes. However, the ambiguous wording of the legislation opened a loophole for cultivators of drug cannabis—it stated that all cannabis plants, even hemp, contain THC. In doing so, it made it possible for cannabis cultivators to argue if subject to arrest that their crops were hemp and intended only for non-drug purposes, even if they contained significant cannabinoid concentrations.
On January 1st 2012, the Concordat latin sur la culture et le commerce du chanvre (Latin Concordat on Hemp Culture and Trading) was brought into force, allowing private citizens in seven Cantons including Geneva and Basel to grow up to four hemp plants (containing less than 1% THC) for personal use. However, in October 2012 the Federal Court of Switzerland ruled the Concordat unlawful as it violated federal narcotics laws. Also in October 2012, the narcotics law of Switzerland was amended slightly to denote that possession of ten grams or less was no longer considered a criminal infringement, but would still be punishable by a fine of 100 Swiss Francs. This amendment came into force in October 2013.
Cannabis in modern Switzerland
In 1997, it was estimated that approximately 500,000 Swiss people use cannabis regularly or occasionally; 7% of individuals aged 15 – 39 stated that they were current users of cannabis. Enforcement of cannabis prohibition laws varies according to the canton (the twenty-six administrative divisions of Switzerland), and is extremely lax in some areas. Extent of enforcement may also vary due to frequent changes in cannabis legislation over the last twenty or so years.
During the 1990s, a cannabis “renaissance” took place in Switzerland, and a spate of over two hundred hemp stores opened across the country, with at least fifty in Zurich alone. These shops primarily sold hemp clothing, food and skincare products, but soon gained notoriety for the sale of small packages of cannabis labelled as potpourri or air freshener, with a warning that it is not intended for consumption.
In 2005, a hemp shop proprietor, James Blond, was arrested for selling cannabis potpourri packages in Zurich, in the first such case seen in the country. He was convicted of illegal supply, fined, and given a 14-month suspended sentence. As a result, dozens of hemp shops were closed over the next year and the ubiquity of cannabis declined markedly.
Cultivation of cannabis in Switzerland
The 2005 ruling was a severe blow to Switzerland’s thousands of cannabis growers, some of whom had come to the country from the Netherlands and the USA to take advantage of the lax laws in order to cultivate seeds for commercial seed companies. Even prior to 2005, there were signs that the grace period was over: the renowned breeder Shantibaba (real name Scott Blakey) was arrested in Italy in 2003 and extradited to Switzerland for his involvement in large-scale cultivation.
Despite the redefinition of the Swiss narcotics laws in 2007, Switzerland continues to have a large and active community of cannabis growers, and there are still well over a hundred hemp shops still in operation.
Cannabis laws, arrests and sentences in Switzerland
The current situation is as follows. Cannabis containing over 1.0% THC is now illegal in Switzerland. Production and sale of over 4kg of cannabis are classified as criminal infringements, and are punishable by a maximum of three years’ imprisonment, possibly with fines added on. Production and sale of less than 4kg of cannabis are also classed as infringements, but are punishable only by fines.
In September 2012, the 2007 regulations were amended so that possession of up to ten grams of cannabis was no longer considered a criminal infringement, which was formerly the case. While not classed as an offence, this is still punishable by a fine of 100 Swiss Francs.
What next for cannabis in Switzerland?
There is a strong legalisation movement in Switzerland, and the general attitude of most Swiss is ambivalent to approving of cannabis. However, decriminalization itself remains a controversial topic, with opponents claiming usage rates in children would skyrocket if cannabis was made widely available. Already, it is estimated that 24% of Swiss children aged 11-15 used cannabis in the year 2009/2010. As well as this, opponents cite rising crime and immigration rates as other reasons to deny access to cannabis.
Apparently, these are powerful arguments. Despite the ubiquity and general inoffensiveness of the Swiss cannabis culture, several efforts to decriminalise the plant have failed. In 2004, a parliamentary initiative narrowly failed; in response, a popular movement was set up later that year. In 2008, the issue was put to a referendum, and of all voters, only 36.7% supported decriminalisation.
Purchasing and using cannabis in Switzerland
It is possible to purchase high-quality cannabis with ease in most urban areas in Switzerland, but this depends on the canton. In Bern, Basel, Geneva, and Zurich, it is generally very easy to source. Generally, it is advisable to restrict consumption to within the home, but in many areas it is possible to discreetly smoke in public parks. If smoking in public, it is wise to avoid attracting the attention of law enforcement agents, although by all accounts police are far more interested in apprehending dealers than smokers.
It is always advisable to secure a reliable, regular supplier rather than buy from street dealers, as in any country, but in Switzerland it does seem that one might have better luck buying on the street than in most countries (although as with anywhere, prices and quality may be somewhat inferior). In Geneva, there are various spots frequented by dealers; the Parc du St Jean and the Jardin Anglais are two such spots, but it is reported that police presence has been on the increase in these areas.
Cannabis is often sold in 50 Franc bags, which if fortunate should contain 4-5 grams of high-quality cannabis, but if unfortunate may contain considerably less. Typically, the price per gram stands at 8-12 Francs, depending on quality, location and supplier.