Switzerland has long been among the most progressive countries in Europe in terms of drug laws. Over the last decade or so, there have been significant alterations made to the national drug policy; for a time, laws were tightened, but in recent years they have begun to relax once more. The Swiss laws on cannabis possession have traditionally been relatively relaxed. In the early 1990s, Switzerland developed a four-pillar approach to drug policy with the first pillar being prevention, the second treatment, the third harm reduction, and the fourth law enforcement. Thus, prevention and treatment are prioritized over criminalization of users.
Switzerland has long been among the most progressive countries in Europe in terms of drug laws. Over the last decade or so, there have been significant alterations made to the national drug policy; for a time, laws were tightened, but in recent years they have begun to relax once more.
Legal aspects concerning consumption, possession and cultivation of cannabis
Cannabis possession & consumption
The Swiss laws on cannabis possession have traditionally been relatively relaxed. In the early 1990s, Switzerland developed a four-pillar approach to drug policy with the first pillar being prevention, the second treatment, the third harm reduction, and the fourth law enforcement. Thus, prevention and treatment are prioritized over criminalization of users.
The possession of up to ten grams of cannabis for personal consumption is subject to a penalty charge of 100 Swiss Francs (€96). As of September 2012 (implemented October 2013), possession of ten grams or less is decriminalized, and will not lead to a criminal record. Consumption itself is also subject to a fine of CHF100 or more, depending on financial circumstances; repeated consumption is subject to increasing fines, depending on financial circumstances and the amount in question. Thus, custodial sentences and compulsory treatment orders are not imposed in cases of simple possession or consumption of cannabis.
Sale of cannabis
The laws covering the sale of cannabis are also remarkably lenient in comparison with most other European countries. For sale of small amounts of cannabis (up to 100g) the penalty is a fine of 1-5 “daily rates” (daily rates or day fines are implemented in several European countries as a means of fining people according to their financial situation, and in Switzerland are set at 1/30 of the defendant’s monthly salary).
For the sale of 100g-1kg of cannabis, the penalty is 5-30 daily rates, and for 1kg-4kg the penalty is set at an amount over 30 daily rates, to be determined by the court. It is only for sale of amounts greater than 4kg that custodial sentences begin to be imposed; in such instances, sentences are set at between one and three years, and may also be cumulated with a fine.
Currently, there is debate in the major Swiss cities of Geneva, Zurich, Bern and Basel over the issue of whether to legalize the sale and purchase of small amounts of cannabis in licenced outlets, possibly structured similarly to the social clubs of Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. Ruth Dreifuss, former President of Switzerland and current member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, is a figurehead of the campaign and has proposed “experimenting with a possible new model” in order to find “evidence of how the black market, crime and public health would change as a result of regulation”.
Cultivation of cannabis
Laws relating to the cultivation of cannabis have changed greatly over the past two decades or so. In 1995, the Swiss Federal Offices of Public Health, Police and Agriculture issued a decision to permit the cultivation of hemp, due to widespread interest within the farming community. However, the wording of the new edict created a loophole allowing for the cultivation of high-THC cannabis, as it stated that hemp contained THC and was therefore a drug, but that cultivation was permissible if the intent was not to produce drugs. Without setting a THC limit, this paved the way for farmers to grow high-THC cannabis and simply call it hemp.
Due to this, cultivation of cannabis was effectively legal until the late 1990s, and although its sale was illegal, a widespread culture of covert retail sales took place. At the time, small quantities would be packaged and sold as “aromatic pillows” or potpourri, often under-the-counter in “smoke shops” that also sold rolling papers and other forms of paraphernalia.
In 1999, two Federal edicts were announced, restricting the sale of cannabis seedlings and cannabis-based foods and beverages to low-THC varieties only. However, shops continued to sell cannabis until at least 2005, when a series of raids culminated in a landmark court case that saw a hemp shop proprietor convicted of illegal supply.
Currently, the situation with cultivation of cannabis is uncertain. There have been repeated attempts to pass laws allowing for the cultivation of small quantities for medical or personal use, but to date cannabis cultivation remains illegal. 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 for personal use. However, in October 2012 the Federal Court of Switzerland ruled the Concordat unlawful as it violated federal narcotics laws. In practice, despite the law, the cultivation of limited numbers of plants for personal use is generally overlooked.
Medicinal cannabis in Switzerland
The status of medical cannabis in Switzerland is also uncertain. There is no explicit provision for medical cannabis in the legislation, but in practice, medical use is unlikely to result in prosecution as long as it is not associated with trafficking or sale.
In 2008, the Swiss parliament passed a law allowing for medical exemptions to the law, but it is not clear how these have been implemented. In November 2013 Switzerland became the 23rd country to approve GW Pharmaceuticals’ sublingual spray Sativex; approximately thirty Swiss citizens also receive dronabinol (a synthetic form of THC) imported from Germany.
Hemp and cannabis seeds
It is legal to grow hemp in Switzerland, provided farmers hold valid licences and undergo laboratory analysis of their product to ensure that THC levels are within the currently-accepted limit of 1%. In order to control THC levels, the Swiss government recently prohibited the sale of non-authorized hemp seed, and authorized eleven varieties of known low-THC content. The eleven authorized varieties can be found here.
It is not entirely clear if the new law on hemp seeds applies also to high-THC cannabis seeds sold to the general public. High-potency cannabis varieties have been widely available throughout Switzerland’s hemp shops for decades, and continue to be available today.
Switzerland continues to maintain a lively industry of hemp cultivation, with the majority of farmers growing hemp for fibre and seed production. The fibre and seed produced is used for the production of textiles, plastics, construction materials, cosmetics and foodstuffs. One of Switzerland’s most prominent hemp growers, Olison, cultivates dioecious hemp in order to extract the essential oils through distillation; the essential oil is then used to produce food flavourings and aromatherapy oils.
Switzerland’s political parties & cannabis
Switzerland has a multi-party federal democratic republic with a vast and confusing array of major and minor parties, and a tradition of coalition governments that work together to maintain the country’s generally centrist position.
Swiss People’s Party (UDC)
The UDC is the largest party in the Swiss Federal Parliament, and has traditionally maintained a typically right-wing and conservative attitude to drug policy. The UDC has recently been vocal in its opposition to the new experimental project for retail sales spearheaded by Ruth Dreifuss, a member of the left-wing PSS, and have stated that they will not sign off the legislation. However, it is likely that the combined pressure of other pro-legalization parties will at least incentivize a significant change in policy.
Social Democratic Paty (PSS)
The PSS has traditionally maintained a liberal, progressive approach to drug policy, and has previously stated support for regulated, legal consumption of heroin and full legalization of cannabis. Former Swiss President and current active party member Ruth Dreifuss is currently spearheading the campaign for legalized retail sales in major cities.
The Liberals (PLR)
The centrist Liberal party is nominally in favour of relaxing laws regarding cannabis, in order to encourage safe and competitive enterprise and bring about an end to the costly and ineffective War on Drugs. However, many of its members are reluctant to support full legalization, and instead support decriminalization similar to the Portuguese model.
Christian Democratic People’s Party (PDC)
The PDC is another centrist party that supports relaxation of cannabis law, and was instrumental in pushing the new decriminalization experiment in Swiss cities. The PDC’s stance on drugs appears to stem from its belief in social justice and economic liberalism.
Federal Democratic Union (UDF)
Along with the UDC, the right-wing UDF is the most firmly opposed to liberalization of drug policy of all of Switzerland’s major political parties. During the 2008 referendums, within which a proposal to legalize cannabis and reform the Federal Statute on Narcotics in favour of harm reduction over criminalization, the UDF and the UDC were among the most vocal detractors and were ultimately responsible for the failure of both measures.