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’The Swiss way is right’: Switzerland defends decision to keep ski resorts open

A multinational effort may see ski slopes closed at resorts across Europe. Switzerland has decided to go its own way, promising to keep the slopes open through the winter.

’The Swiss way is right’: Switzerland defends decision to keep ski resorts open
Switzerland's ski slopes are open and will most likely stay that way. Image: AFP

France, Italy and Germany are leading a European Union effort to close ski slopes until mid January at the earliest. 

Switzerland however is going its own way. With ski slopes already open across the country – and more still to follow. 

“In Switzerland, we can go skiing, with protection plans in place,” Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset told reporters Thursday.

He added, though, that the government would re-examine the situation before the Christmas holidays, because even though decisions on what parts of the economy should shut down are generally left to the Swiss cantons, or states, the federal government can step in if it deems the situation unsafe.

Markus Berger from Switzerland Tourism criticised the efforts to close ski resorts, saying he was confident that the Swiss had the right approach. 

“In Switzerland, the Federal Council, the authorities and the tourism industry are convinced that the Swiss way is right – for the moment – and that the winter season can take place safely,” Berger told DPA

READ MORE: 

– IN PICTURES: Swiss hit the slopes 'to save ski season' 

– Is it safe to ski in the Swiss Alps this season? 

– Can Switzerland still save its ski season?

– Will an American-style queuing system end chaos at Swiss ski lifts? 

Berger questioned whether efforts at a European level to stop skiing would be effective, particularly with neighbouring Austria – unlike Switzerland an EU member – also being resistant. 

“The idea of a Europe-wide coordinated season opening of the winter sport destinations was informally discussed in the Alpine countries as early as late summer and was not pursued for being unsuitable,” said Berger.

“We therefore assume that this approach (to stop skiing until January) will no longer be successful either,” Berger said.

Merkel piste-off about plans to ski over Christmas

“I will say this openly that it won't be easy, but we will try (to close ski resorts until January),” Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday.

While urging Germans to stay at home over the year's end festive season, the states and federal government agreed to “work at the European side, to not allow ski tourism until January 10”.

Although Germany cannot stop Switzerland from skiing, it may act to prevent Germans from heading south for the winter – which could have serious impacts for Switzerland. 

Almost eight million guests came to Switzerland for the ski season in 2018-19 – the last season unaffected by the pandemic – with approximately ten percent coming from Germany

For now, Bern is opting to trust people to respect the protection measures put in place by chairlift operators and ski schools, including facemask requirements everywhere except on the slopes.

“In Switzerland, the government, the authorities and the tourism industry are all convinced that the Swiss way is for now the right one, and that the winter season can go ahead safely,” Veronique Kanel, spokeswoman for the national tourism office, told AFP.

Monday's launch of the winter ski season received backing from President Simonetta Sommaruga, who said she was “counting on the population to help us ensure this is a successful winter.”

Swiss authorities have hailed stringent measures put in place by the operators of Switzerland's more than 2,400 ski-lift installations, which include button lifts, t-bars, chairlifts, and cable cars. Implementation has meanwhile not always been smooth.

A picture of skiers packed together as they queued for a lift in Zermatt earlier this month sparked outrage, and police have been asked to intervene on several occasions.

For weeks now, the Swiss have been invited to hit the slopes at resorts like Verbier, Gstaad and Saas-Fee.

“We'll ski at Christmas,” Christophe Darbellay, the regional government chief in the southwestern canton of Wallis, insisted to AFP.

The region, which counts some of Switzerland's biggest ski resorts, has already opened its hotels back up after a brief shutdown and restaurants are due to be back in business in mid-December.

Closure 'not an option' 

“More than ever, people need fresh air, snow, space,” Darbellay said, voicing disbelief at the decision in neighbouring France to shut ski lifts, but not the metros in Paris.

In Valais, shutting down the resorts “is not an option,” he said.

If Switzerland does become the only country with open slopes in the Alps, its resorts could see some ardent ski enthusiasts from across Europe show up, but they are not bracing for a massive influx of foreign tourists.

“We do not expect to have huge numbers of Europeans on the Swiss slopes, given the travel and movement restrictions in place in European countries,” Kanel said, pointing out that Germany for instance considered Switzerland a high-risk zone.

And even with the resorts open, the outlook for Switzerland's ski and tourism sector remains dim.

A study conducted by Switzerland Tourism in October showed that accommodation reservations in the mountains over the Christmas holiday were 19 percent lower than last year, while ski holiday bookings had shrunk 28 percent.

Floriane Moerch, the spokeswoman for an association of some 350 Swiss ski-lift operating companies, told AFP the industry was deeply concerned about what lies ahead.

“A ski-lift shutdown would be very difficult.”

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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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