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Ten years of The Local: How Switzerland has changed in a decade

The year 2021 marked ten years since The Local Switzerland started publishing. Our Geneva-based journalist Helena Bachmann takes a look at what changes took place in the country during that time — and what remains the same.

 Another thing that hasn’t changed: the Swiss flag. Photo by Janosch Diggelmann on Unsplash
A picture of the Swiss flag. Photo: Janosch Diggelmann on Unsplash

Depending on how you look at the passage of time, a decade is either very long or just a blink of an eye.

And also depending on your perspective, Switzerland has either changed a lot in these 10 years, or not enough.

From a purely journalistic point of view, the news that was trending in 2011 was both totally different and eerily similar to today, except for Covid-19, as a global health crisis of this scope was not on anyone’s radar.

Among the first articles The Local published in 2011 were ones headlined Zürich zoo celebrates gorilla birth, Half of Swiss bats have malaria, and Swiss woman killed in elephant brawl.

But there was also one story that makes us realise ten years is indeed a very long time: Swiss government told to launch Bush probe, a story about a possible investigation into former US President George W Bush. 

However, other articles from 2011 remind us that some issues never grow old: How to find a Swiss home of your own and Finding a job in Switzerland are as pertinent today as they were back then.

The more things change, the more things stay the same

From my own point of view (both journalistic and personal), this quote comes to mind when comparing 2011 to the present: “The more things change, the more they remain the same”.

If changes in Switzerland are slow to happen, it is mostly due to local mentality and political system — neither of which ever changes.

In the former case, the Swiss prefer to take their time to debate issues, form commissions and committees to debate issues, and act (or not act) on them only after a long deliberation and due-diligence process.

In the latter case, Switzerland’s famous system of direct democracy brings all manner of sometimes-urgent matters to the ballot box, which could take a while as well.

If I have to weigh in (unilaterally, without creating commissions and committees to debate the issue or bringing it to a referendum) about what changes happened in Switzerland in the past decade, I would say the country and its people are now more open to technology and ‘digitalisation’ of their lives.

Years ago, I often came across people who didn’t even know how to turn on the computer, much less use search engines, purchase products online, or conduct all kinds of business on the Internet.

A computer repairman I know was often called into people’s homes to fix their computer. In more cases than one the ‘problem’ he found was that the PC was not plugged in. The cable was dangling a metre away from the electrical outlet and they were wondering why they couldn’t turn on their computer.

This has changed significantly, with most people, including the older generation, now routinely using digital services ranging from online platforms to mobile apps.

The same pertains to phones: most homes in 2011 (mine included) had land lines, and mobile phones were still not as common as they are today.

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Now, many households (mine included) only have cell phones, with landlines (like fax machines) being a thing of the past.

So yes, the Swiss have become much more technologically savvy than before, which is a huge thing for people who don’t really like to embrace change.

And now here’s what (in my view) remained pretty much the same since 2011 (and probably way before then):

  • Switzerland is still expensive, though more products and services from abroad are now more available.
  • On the whole, the Swiss still don’t care for foreigners, though they learned to tolerate them for economic reasons.
  • Making friends with Swiss people is still (in many cases) an enormous effort.
  • The mythical (and yet so real) mental divide (the so-called Röstigraben) between the German and French-speaking regions is still in place. Interestingly, Italian-speakers are most adaptable to both.

And all that brings me to what I said before: the more things in Switzerland change, the more they mostly remain the same.

Regardless of whether you’ve lived in Switzerland for a day, a week or a decade, we’d like to hear from you. Let us know in the comments how Switzerland has changed – or hasn’t – in the time you’ve lived here. 

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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?