Until a few years ago, Cannabis was all but legal in Switzerland. From 2009-2013, up until the revision of the Narcotics Act, cultivation of cannabis was permitted without limits imposed on the THC content and only the preparation, distribution and consumption of the parts of the plant containing THC was prohibited, unless special authorisation had been granted to the farmer, which was granted for supply to cannabis breweries or for the production of extracts for aromatherapy.
In Switzerland, new discussions have been sparked about cannabis regulation.
The story so far
Until a few years ago, Cannabis was all but legal in Switzerland. From 2009-2013, up until the revision of the Narcotics Act, cultivation of cannabis was permitted without limits imposed on the THC content and only the preparation, distribution and consumption of the parts of the plant containing THC was prohibited, unless special authorisation had been granted to the farmer, which was granted for supply to cannabis breweries or for the production of extracts for aromatherapy. The Swiss were even on the brink of regulating the cultivation, further processing and sale of weed and hash, following a recommendation from the Swiss Federation for Drug Issues (EKDF) to revise the Narcotic Act (BetmG) and legalise the consumption, trade and cultivation of cannabis. In response, on 9 March 2011 the Swiss Federal Council approved a revision of the Narcotics Act in line with the recommendations of the EKDF. The Swiss Council of States – the upper house (one of the two legislative chambers) – followed the recommendations of the Swiss Federal Council and adopted the proposal by majority vote. The National Council (the lower house), however, lost a lot of time and in addition was put under pressure by the United Nations in summer 2002. The argument in New York at the time was that a new member should adhere to the Single Convention of 1961, as a result of which cannabis cultivation had been as good as wiped out the world over. The provisions of this UN dogma were so restrictive that even the cultivation of hemp for industrial use was subject to complicated and expensive formalities, which made (were designed to make?) cultivation unattractive for many farmers worldwide.
It was at this time that Switzerland, as one of the last countries in the world, wanted to enter the international community, which happened to be totally opposed to the planned revision of the Swiss Narcotics Act. This small federal state had to choose: legal weed or full membership of the United Nations. Of course, faced with such a choice, the National Council chose the UN over regulation. In 2003, the Act, which was considered a shoo-in, was opposed and in 2004 it was thrown out completely. The decision divided all political camps and was the motivation for the foundation of the ‘Pro Youth Protection’ (Pro Jugendschutz) association, in which representatives of all parties and many citizens from civil society were active. In 2006 it submitted 115,000 signatures to the Federal Council in support of ‘a reasonable cannabis policy with effective youth protection’, which became known in the press as the “Cannabis Initiative”. This grass-roots initiative for the re-legalisation of cannabis was subsequently rejected by almost two thirds (63%) of the Swiss population on 30 November 2008. At the same time, however, a proposed revision of the Narcotics Act was accepted, under which:
- the consumption of cannabis or the possession of small amounts for personal use would only be a regulatory offence that would be punished with a fine
- reporting the cultivation of hemp would be compulsory
- the maximum permitted TCH content would be 1.5% (only 0.3% in the EU).
It took the Federal Government in Bern almost 5 years before all the points of the revision were implemented. The decision regarding the full fines structure for the consumption and possession of small amounts wasn’t taken until 2013.
Initiative from Geneva
Following the rejection of the hemp initiative, the theme of re-legalisation left the public eye for some time. Only in the cities of Bern, Zurich and Basel did the cannabis discussion continue in the form of a pilot for legal sales.
When the fines structure was introduced last year, criticism rained in from all cantons. The preference of the Basel police was not to punish cannabis consumers at all, while in Zurich fines are issued at every opportunity and elsewhere the fines structure was considered too liberal.
In response to the shortcomings of the new Act, at the end of 2013 a group of politicians from the Geneva canton came with a plan promoting a nationwide pilot for regulated cannabis sales. Professor Sandro Cattacin, President of the Geneva Project Group and Director of the Faculty of Sociology at the University of Geneva, also believes that a regulation trial could take place without the approval of Bern:
A law change at national level just doesn’t have a chance at the moment. My assumption is therefore that trials will start in the cantons, which Bern will perhaps view sceptically, but tolerate somehow. After all, they won’t send in the troops, will they,”
explained Cattacin in an interview on Swiss TV. If Bern doesn’t come around, it could, they argue in Geneva, come to civil disobedience. Cattacin, who is a member of the EKDF, promotes both the coffee shop trial and the regulation of private cultivation in the form of Cannabis Social Clubs. Barely were the words of the initiator of the project group out of his mouth and support from Bern, Zurich and Basel poured in. The President of the EKDF and the Deputy Head Physician of Winterthur Psychiatry, Toni Berthel supports Geneva’s plan. His home town, Winterthur, the sixth largest city in Switzerland, also took the unexpected decision on 19 March 2014 to support regulated sales at local level. Last but not least, in Ticino the “Associazione Cannabis Ricreativa Ticino” recently submitted such a proposal to the canton parliament. Led by Thomas Kesseler, the commission is currently drawing up the regulation model for legal cannabis sales, which will be proposed in May. Until the end of 2013, Kessler was a member of the commission. He is currently working as town planner for the city of Basel. The Project Group claims that the trial will be in line with both Swiss and international law.
Since the ludicrous consequences of the whimsically revised Narcotics Act became apparent, there is finally movement again in Switzerland after years of deadlock. It’s just a shame that we had to take such a large step backwards first.
Who is for the regulation of cannabis in Switzerland?
Geneva: Unlike in the other big cities, in Geneva the Canton parliament is responsible for the initiative. In the foreground is a scientifically backed attempt to set up a Cannabis Social Club in which cannabis can be sold to adults.
Bern: voted in favour of an attempt to set up the coffee shop trial model as early as 2006. Since then, this sentiment has been continually reiterated.
Basel: The Basel council has wanted the coffee shop model since 2010. Together with the city of Zurich, Basel submitted the model to the Federal Council for approval, which rejected it, saying it contravened prevailing legislation. Basel town planner Thomas Kesseler is currently working on amending the above-mentioned regulation model.
Zurich: Just like Basel, the Zurich council has also wanted the coffee shop model since 2010, but this proposal was reviewed and rejected along with the Basel Initiative. Like Basel and Bern, Zurich has representatives in the working group for cannabis regulation of the EKDF.
Winterthur: On 19 March 2014, the Winterthur council decided by the smallest possible majority of 26 to 25 to participate in the pilot.
Ticino: The cantonal government are currently reviewing the “Associazione Cannabis Ricreative Ticino” proposals.