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

Binge drinking is on the rise across the country - particularly amongst women - while the use of cocaine and ecstasy in Swiss cities is among the highest in Europe.

Drugs and alcohol: Just how much do the Swiss consume?
Two revellers from Basel, Switzerland, wearing traditional Basel city guard uniforms. Photo: SEBASTIAN WIDMANN / AFP

The figures, compiled by Addiction Switzerland, also show that while tobacco use has stabilised, the use of tobacco-related products such as e-cigarettes is on the rise – which the authors say may be because these products have been sold as healthier alternatives. 

Other addictions to prescription drugs as well as gambling and the internet are also on the increase, while the Swiss are consuming more and more new psychoactive substances which have been purchased online. 

World leaders in cocaine and ecstasy consumption

Although self-reported use of illicit drugs has been relatively stable in recent years, use of cocaine and ecstasy remains high in Switzerland – particularly in urban areas. 

This is backed up by the Wastewater Analysis Study by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which showed Swiss cities to have some of the highest use of the drugs anywhere in Europe. 

Zurich’s per capita usage was third in Europe, behind only Bristol and Amsterdam, while St Gallen (sixth), Geneva (seventh), Basel (ninth) and Bern (11th) were also high on the list. 

Image: European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Alcohol Addiction

For ecstasy usage, Zurich (third), St Gallen (seventh) and Geneva (eighth) were also high up on the list. 

Cannabis consumption has also been on the rise, with four percent of those surveyed admitting to using the drug compared with 2.9 percent in 2012. Addiction Switzerland estimate between 40 and 60 tonnes of cannabis is consumed annually in Switzerland. 

Switzerland also banned 13 new substances in 2019, the majority of which were purchased online and sent into the country.

Women have a growing problem with drinking

On the whole, alcohol consumption is steady in Switzerland. The average annual consumption is 7.7 litres of pure alcohol. 

Image: Sucht Schweiz/Addiction Switzerland

But problematic drinking is on the rise, with the number of young women who get drunk regularly doubling from 12 to 24 percent in 2017. 

Alcohol poisoning is also on the rise, up by 23 percent for men and 36 percent for women (both from figures from 2003). 

Smoking down, tobacco use up

One major finding of the study was that while people in Switzerland are smoking less, the use of tobacco products is on the rise. 

E-cigarettes, tobacco heaters and mouth tobacco (snus) are on the rise, particularly among younger people. 

While Addiction Switzerland argues that these products can help reduce tobacco consumption, there is a danger that people use these products under the impression they are healthier or not addictive. 

Grégoire Vittoz, the director of Addiction Switzerland, said in a statement that it was even more problematic as these products were less regulated: “the increasing variety of products urgently requires control”. 

Newer addictions on the increase: Prescription drugs, gambling and internet usage

Regulation on strong ‘legal’ drugs – i.e. those available via prescription or over the counter – increased across the board in Switzerland. 

Unlike in other countries, Switzerland is comparatively lax when it comes to regulating strong pain killers and sedatives. 

Opioid painkiller usage increased by 18 percent, while almost one in ten said they regularly use sleeping pills or other sedatives. 

The average respondent spends 122 francs per month on online games, while half of those who gamble do so with the Swiss Lotto. Casino revenue increased by three percent on the previous year to reach 703.60 million francs. 

More than half of Swiss (55 percent) played some form of electronic gambling game, while 16.2 percent did so frequently. Three percent of respondents – approximately 192,000 people in Switzerland – did so excessively. 

Image: Sucht Schweiz/Addiction Switzerland

Around four percent of those surveyed had what Addiction Switzerland called “problematic internet usage”, while almost nine in ten respondents used the internet regularly. Young people had the highest usage, averaging four hours a day. 

A version of this article was first published in February, 2020. 

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UPDATE: What are Switzerland’s rules for cannabis consumption?

Switzerland has a complicated set of rules for both medical and recreational cannabis consumption. Here's what you need to know.

UPDATE: What are Switzerland's rules for cannabis consumption?

Long prohibited and seen as a gateway drug with potentially dangerous impacts, countries across the globe have begun legalising cannabis in recent years. 

While the legalisation for medical use has been widespread, there have also been successful legalisation campaigns in several countries. 

The situation in Switzerland is also in flux and has been complicated by a range of recent changes.

Whether referred to as cannabis, marijuana or hemp, Switzerland’s Narcotics Act qualifies it as “a psychoactive substance”, with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) being its most intoxicating ingredient.

The law specifies that “only THC is controlled under the Narcotics Act. Other active substances like cannabidiol (CBD) are not subject to the Narcotics Act as they do not have comparable psychoactive effects”.

Here’s what you need to know. 

Switzerland has legalised medical marijuana 

As of August 1st, the use of cannabis for medical purposes will be allowed in Switzerland

Patients who are medically prescribed the drug will no longer need to seek exceptional permission from the health ministry, as was the case prior to August 1st. 

Demand for cannabis-based treatments has risen sharply, with the health ministry issuing 3,000 exceptional authorisations in 2019.

The government “intends to facilitate access to cannabis for medical use for patients” and was therefore lifting the ban on its use for that purpose, it said in a statement.

The previous procedure involved “tedious administrative procedures”, said the ministry. “Sick people must be able to access these medicines without excessive bureaucracy.”

As of August 1st, “the decision as to whether a cannabis medicinal product is to be used therapeutically will be made by the doctor together with the patient” the government wrote

The sale and consumption of cannabis for non-medical purposes will remain prohibited.

READ MORE: Switzerland to lift ban on medical use cannabis

The new regulations could benefit thousands of people suffering from severe chronic pain, it added, including those with cancer and multiple sclerosis.

READ ALSO: Why Basel is about to become Switzerland’s marijuana capital

The law change will also mean that the cultivation, processing, manufacture and trade of cannabis for medical use will be subject to the Swissmedic regulatory authority, just as with other narcotics for medical use such as cocaine, methadone and morphine.

Legality of recreational cannabis is determined by the THC

THC of at least 1 percent is generally prohibited in Switzerland and use of products with this (or higher) content may be punishable by a 100-franc fine.

Of course, if someone is determined to smoke it, 100 francs may not be much a deterrent — but that’s a subject for another article.

“By contrast, possession of up to 10g of cannabis for personal use is not considered a criminal offence”, the law states, as long as it is not used by or sold to minors.

Italy's constitutional court has blocked the latest efforts to legalise cannabis.

Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP.

And, as with nearly everything else in decentralised Switzerland, “there are still considerable differences between cantons regarding implementation of the fixed penalty procedure”.

However, “cannabis flowers intended for smoking with a high proportion of cannabidiol (CBD) and less than 1 percent THC can be sold and purchased legally”, according to the legislation. 

That’s because, unlike the THC, cannabidiol “does not have a psychoactive effect”.

In other words, low-content THC and CBD will not give the “high” that recreational users seek.

When will Switzerland legalise recreational cannabis?

Currently, small amounts of recreational cannabis are tolerated in Switzerland.

“The decisive factor for classification as a banned drug is how much THC is contained in a cannabis product. If the THC content exceeds one per cent, the product is prohibited. Hashish is prohibited regardless of its THC content.”

As noted by the Swiss government, “If you are caught in possession of a small amount of cannabis (no more than 10 grams) for your own consumption, you will not be fined. In addition, if you supply (but do not sell) up to 10 grams to an adult, e.g. when sharing joints, you will not be fined.”

“If you are caught using cannabis, you may be given a fixed penalty fine of 100 francs.”

In June 2020, the National Council approved a plan to start cannabis trials for recreational use.

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. 

The study seeks to find out how the market for cannabis works – and how to combat the black market. The social effects of legalisation will also be examined. 

At this point, no decisions have been made. However, Swiss authorities have set certain conditions in case recreational use is approved.

The National Council said if cannabis were to be legalised, it must be locally grown in Switzerland – and it must be organic. 

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

READ MORE: Switzerland backs recreational cannabis trials – with one condition

Can you grow your own cannabis?

In truth, a number of people cultivate marijuana plants on their balconies or in their (secluded) gardens for their own personal use.

As it turns out, the law allows it, as long as it is a variety of the plant that does not have a narcotic effect — that is, the THC content must be less than 1 percent. 

By the same token, cannabis-based products with THC content of below 1 percent can be brought into Switzerland from abroad.

However, the import rules differ depending on the type of product  it is — flowers, seeds, extracts, oils, or other goods.

How much cannabis is consumed in Switzerland each year?

Precise numbers are hard to come by, but according to an article in Le Temps, which based its information on a medical study, about 100 tonnes are consumed in the country annually.

Cannabis remains the largest market in terms of volume: it represents 85 percent of drugs consumed in Switzerland, netting between 340, 000 and 500,000 francs per year.

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