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HEALTH

Coronavirus in Italy: Should Switzerland close its southern border?

The first case of coronavirus has been confirmed in Switzerland. Right-wing politicians have agitated for additional border controls - and even closing the border - as a result.

Coronavirus in Italy: Should Switzerland close its southern border?
Photo: MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

The coronavirus has spread throughout northern Italy, with hundreds of confirmed cases and a mounting death toll in the regions of Lombardy and Veneto – both of which sit just below the Swiss border. 

READ: France vows to keep border open despite coronavirus spread

Right-wing politicians in Switzerland have said there is an urgent need to screen arrivals on the country’s southern border – and in particular in the Italian-speaking region of Ticino. 

Critics however have hit back, arguing that such a move would not only have devastating economic consequences, but that it would hamper the region’s ability to tackle the crisis. 

Of the 70,000 cross-border workers who commute into Ticino daily from Italy, around 4,000 work in the healthcare sector – including at least 120 doctors. 

‘An end to the free movement of persons’

The Swiss People’s Party (SVP) has said the spread of the coronavirus from northern Italy into Switzerland highlights the problem with open borders, saying that additional checks should be put in place. 

On Monday, the SVP’s Christoph Mörgeli tweeted that the spread of the virus highlights the need for ending the free movement of persons from neighbouring European countries.

Mörgeli urged the public to support the SVP’s initiative on the matter which will be voted on in May. 

“130 people in northern Italy are infected with the Corona virus. 70,000 northern Italians commute to Switzerland every day. The free movement of people is wrong. Now even more so: yes to the limitation initiative!”

 

 

READ: What you need to know about Switzerland’s May referenda

The SVP has suggested putting in place temperature screening equipment, with authorities then sending back anyone who was warmer than a set amount. 

While Austria had suspended train travel on its southern border, Switzerland as yet has not put in place any controls. 

‘Do not close the borders’

Michael Ryan, emergency chief at the World Health Organisation, said that working together to handle the threat was a more effective means of tackling the spread than closing borders across the continent. 

“Do not close the borders”, Ryan said. 

With the virus already present in Switzerland, it appears that putting in place border controls would have little effect. 

The Swiss Federal Office of Public Health said on Wednesday that the spread of the virus would not be stopped by closing the borders, while the body also said travelling to Ticino remained safe. 

Around 70,000 workers commute from Italy into southern Switzerland to work on a daily basis, 4,000 of whom are estimated to work in the health sector – including 120 doctors. 

Approximately one fifth of the nursing staff in Ticino are cross-border workers. 

READ: Five things you should know if you're a cross-border worker in Switzerland

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The SVP has been criticised in Swiss media for using the outbreak of the virus for political purposes, with Swiss daily Watson writing that the party is trying to “profit from the (coronavirus) situation”.

 

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CANNABIS

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?

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