Swiss set to relax cannabis laws

Swiss pot smokers are expecting a relaxation of the rules when parliament reviews the country's cannabis laws in March.

Swiss set to relax cannabis laws
Mateusz Atroszko (File)

Although Switzerland voted against full legalization of cannabis a few years ago, the topic is still being debated. Parliament must now consider a new compromise, which could reduce penalties for people over 18 years of age.

The proposal would see a new distinction in the way individuals are treated which would depend on the amount of weed in a person’s possession. Any adult caught carrying 10 grams or less could simply receive an on-the-spot fine of 100 francs ($109) rather than being dragged before a judge.

Minors would not be able to take advantage of this distinction, and would still be required to go before the courts.

Many are critical of the new proposal, such as Toni Bortoluzzi of the Swiss People’s Party. He believes the limit of 10 grams is unacceptably high and thinks it should be reduced, online news website 20 Minutes reported.

Others such as Jacqueline Fehr, of the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland, are against the introduction of a fixed limit. It would be unrealistic to implement as the police cannot be expected carry scales about with them, she said.

Fehr and others believe it would be better if each situation were judged on its own merits, with further action being taken where circumstances pointed to other criminal activity.

But Ruth Humble, of the Christian Democratic People’s Party, believes the idea of a fixed limit is fair.

“It cannot be the case that the police in each canton make judgments on different quantities,” she said.

In St. Gallen, a fining system is already in operation. Here the fines are set at 50 francs ($54) for any adult caught with up to five grams of cannabis. Originally the definition of an adult meant that people aged 15 and older were able to escape with a fine only. This was amended a year ago so that the age limit is now 18 years.

“We have been happy to take on the extra work because it has enabled us to identify young people at risk,” prosecutor Thomas Hansjakob told 20 Minutes.

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Switzerland backs recreational cannabis trials – with one condition

Switzerland’s Council of States has approved a plan to start cannabis trials for recreational use, but only 'experienced cannabis users' should apply.

Switzerland backs recreational cannabis trials - with one condition
A file photo of the opening of a cannabis clinic in Thailand. Image: Mladen ANTONOV / AFP
The study, which was approved by the Council of States on Wednesday, hopes to find out more about the effects that a controlled legalisation of the drug would have in Switzerland. 

As reported in Swiss news outlet Watson, the government is looking “only for adults who already use cannabis to take part in the study”. 

The proposal was previously approved by Switzerland's lower house – the National Council – in June. 

The decision to embark upon the trial was to be made in March but was delated due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The experiments are to be carried out in Switzerland’s larger cities. Basel, Bern, Biel, Geneva and Zurich have all expressed interest in conducting the trials. 

Drugs and alcohol: Just how much do the Swiss consume? 

The study wants to understand how the market for cannabis works – and how to combat the black market. The social effects of legalisation are also set to be studied. 

“The models must be tested before starting the debate on whether or not to liberalise cannabis,” said Pierre-Yves Maillard (Social Democrats), a spokesperson for the responsible committee. 

Only people who currently use cannabis – and can prove it – will be allowed to participate. Proof will be determined through a hair sample. 

‘Organic and Swiss’

There remains one sticking point between Switzerland's lower and upper house.

While the National Council has demanded that Swiss-grown, organic cannabis be used as part of the trial – the Council of States has said it does not want to make this a requirement. 

Instead, organic, Swiss-grown cannabis must be used in the trial “wherever possible”, with the Council of States noting that such cannabis is hard to find.

Minister of Health Alain Berset said that a legalisation should benefit Swiss farmers even though “very few producers have experience in this area”. 

200,000 cannabis users in Switzerland

An estimated 200,000 people smoke cannabis products in Switzerland. Those in favour of the new trial argue that this shows the war on drugs has failed – and that legalisation will 

Since 2011, the sale of cannabis products containing up to one percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the ingredient that makes users high – has been legal in Switzerland.

Regular strength cannabis and other associated products such as hashish are also illegal, although small amounts (less than ten grams) are decriminalised and will only attract a 100 franc on-the-spot fine. 

A poll by the World Health Organisation showed that more teenagers smoked in Switzerland than in any other European country, with 27 percent of 15 year olds having smoked at least once. 

The use of cannabis for medical purposes is also heavily restricted in Switzerland, with only one product – CBD oil – legally available for sale.