Top Swiss health commission call for ‘legalisation’ of cannabis

A top Swiss health commission said on Tuesday that the country's drug laws should be changed to decriminalize cannabis use and regulate the market for the substance in Switzerland.

Top Swiss health commission call for 'legalisation' of cannabis
Consumption of cannabis with a THC content of more than one percent is illegal in Switzerland. File photo: AFP

The recommendations are included in the Cannabis Update 2019 produced by the Swiss National Commission for Addiction Issues, an independent advisory body made up of experts which reports to the government.

The commission makes it clear prohibition has failed, with rates of cannabis use steady in Switzerland despite laws designed to stop people using the drug.

Read also: Thousands of Swiss people could get 'cannabis licence'

Around 200,000 people regularly use cannabis in Switzerland, according to government estimates, while one percent of the Swiss population admit to using cannabis regularly (at least 20 days a month).

At the same time, the ban on cannabis has given rise to a criminal black market, while prohibition means there are no guarantees as to the quality or safety of street cannabis.

The report, which looks at the latest science on the health impacts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), concludes that decriminalizing cannabis use and regulating the market are key to protecting the health of the Swiss population, and especially young people.

In its report, the addiction commission paints a generally negative picture of current cannabis legislation in Switzerland.

Currently, consumption of cannabis containing up to one percent THC is legal. Anything stronger is illegal. However, since 2013, adults caught with ten grams or less of the drug can face a 100-franc fine instead of criminal proceedings.

But the health commission says the 2013 changes are universally applied. It notes that cannabis laws are applied very strictly in some cantons while other cantons are far more lenient.

In addition, the laws are confusing and have given rise to “absurd situations” where possession of 10 grams of cannabis goes unpunished but people are fined for smoking a joint, the commission notes.

Read also: Zurich pharmacies want to sell medicinal and recreational cannabis

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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.