OPINION: Why Switzerland’s gradual legalisation of cannabis is a positive move

As the first pilot projects begin in Zurich and Basel allowing the sale of cannabis for recreational use, Clare O’Dea welcomes this most recent step towards full legalisation. Buying cannabis from a Swiss pharmacy is preferable to getting friendly with your local dealer, she writes.

OPINION: Why Switzerland's gradual legalisation of cannabis is a positive move
A participant competes against the clock during the Joint Roll Contest at CannaTrade 2021, International Cannabis Expo. Is Switzerland's gradual legalisation of cannabis a good thing?(Photo by STEFAN WERMUTH / AFP)

Switzerland has been moving tentatively in the direction of the legalisation of cannabis for several years. This has created a contradiction where personal recreational use is tolerated but the wider trade is still illegal. The anomaly is bound to end eventually and the pilot projects are part of that process.

READ ALSO: Swiss region to test legalising cannabis

Also part of the process is the relaxation of access to cannabis for medical purposes. Starting from August, Swiss doctors are permitted to prescribe cannabis to their patients. Previously, the system was much more restrictive with patients forced to overcome significant bureaucratic hurdles to be granted a licence to consume.

Medical cannabis is known to be beneficial to people suffering from chronic pain and muscle spasms. As a young adult, I considered procuring cannabis to help my father ease his multiple sclerosis symptoms. We talked about it but were ultimately put off by the taboo of illegality. I’m glad Swiss families don’t have this worry any more.

READ ALSO: What are Switzerland’s rules on cannabis consumption?

The new legislation sets an important precedent, establishing a legal basis for medical cannabis to be imported and exported, including plants, resins and oils, and making the approval process for cultivation in Switzerland more straightforward.

Great care has been taken to make the pilot studies seem as unthreatening as possible. The trials have been authorised by the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) as a fact-finding mission to provide a scientific basis for future regulations.

The FOPH answers a hundred-and-one questions about the trials on its website. As if they were distributing dynamite and not a product that is consumed by hundreds of thousands of Swiss residents every week.

We are told that users in the trials will be able to legally purchase various cannabis-related products, including edibles, the quality of which will be highly regulated. The prices will be roughly in line with the black market.

As well as receiving product information, participants will be made aware of the risks of cannabis consumption by staff at the points of sale who will be trained accordingly.”

Wouldn’t you prefer if your teenagers accessed the drug in this way rather than behind the bike shed at school? The chances of cannabis becoming a gateway drug must be reduced if consumption is less furtive and the seller doesn’t also have harder delicacies in their other pocket.

The whole process is going to be slow with no results on the trials expected before 2024. Once the trials are completed, the (FOPH) will draw up a report for the Federal Council and things will be taken from there.

In a way, the trials are a stalling tactic to get people used to the idea. Any legal move to make this system the norm would be subject to a popular vote. Because the last two votes on cannabis legalisation ended in a ‘no’, the government wants to be able to say that it’s done its due diligence the next time.

According to the Zurich pilot, ‘Zuri Can’, cannabis is the most widely consumed illegal substance in Switzerland. Banning the drug has not stopped its use. If anything, it has exposed young people (the main users) to the risk of encountering much stronger and more harmful cannabis products.

On the illegal market, you don’t know what you’re buying. One thing you do know is that the cannabis available today is much stronger than what was consumed when the drug was popularised in the 1960s.

Back then, cannabis products contained less than 3 per cent of the psychoactive substance tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). These days, THC levels are commonly between 10 and 20 per cent.

It’s no wonder that excessive or long-term use of the drug can lead to “a greater incidence of critical life problems, associated with serious developmental disorders, social disintegration and addiction”, according to the FOPH.

Considering the history of Swiss policy on hard drugs, it is surprising that cannabis has been handled so tentatively to date.

When the open heroin scene became a national disgrace and humanitarian problem in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a new approach was adopted to manage the problem – with the approval of voters. Heroin addicts who’d tried rehab programmes and failed were allowed to get their fix on prescription.

This policy continues today and is credited with saving many lives by reducing the incidence of overdoses and diseases. It has certainly helped more addicts to live relatively normal lives or even overcome their addiction than would otherwise have been the case.

There is currently a 100-franc fixed penalty fine for cannabis use unless it’s a small amount for your own consumption (less than 10 grams). You are also allowed to grow hemp privately as long as it’s a strain of the plant with less than one per cent THC content.

The increased circulation of medical cannabis that will inevitably follow last month’s change in the law will give us a picture of what the legal supply chain might look like in the future. It’s a great business opportunity for some.

Hopefully, by the time the guinea pigs of Basel, Zurich and the other cities that follow have smoked their last test joint, the public will be ready for cannabis to be dealt with in a more controlled, safe and open way.

Member comments

  1. The article seems to vary between discussing recreational use and medical use. Is the program in Zurich and Basel for recreational or medical use?

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EXPLAINED: How Switzerland wants to cut soaring healthcare costs

Swiss health costs have been rising in recent years, with further spikes, including in insurance premiums, seen as inevitable. The government is proposing measures to counter this upward trend.

EXPLAINED: How Switzerland wants to cut soaring healthcare costs

Based on the information released by Santésuisse, an umbrella group for health insurance companies, an overall increase of around 4 percent for 2023 will be the norm.

Unfortunately for the consumers, who are already hard-hit by rising energy costs, premiums for compulsory health insurance will likely rise by an average of 5 percent in the fall, according to online price comparison site, Comparis.

And many people could even see their premiums soar by more than 10 percent in 2023 — the sharpest hike in premiums in 20 years.

The exact amounts of premiums for all policyholders will be released by the end of October.

The price hikes are not a new phenomenon per se: over the past 20 years, costs have risen at twice the rate of economic growth, resulting in health insurance premiums that are 90 percent higher than in 2002.

READ MORE: How spiralling costs are jeopardising Switzerland’s healthcare system

Why have these costs been increasing so much?

Part of the reason is the fact that people in Switzerland have a high life expectancy, but as they get older, they tend to suffer from chronic, cost-intensive diseases.

The more recent hikes can be attributed to higher medical costs incurred during the two years of coronavirus pandemic, estimated to cost insurers over one billion francs so far, not even taking into account about 265 million spent for Covid vaccinations in 2021.

Add to that the cost (paid for by the government) of Covid tests, as well as booster shots administered in 2022, and those still to be given once Switzerland rolls out second doses in 2023.

How will the government cut these costs?

Santésuisse has been urging the Federal Council to implement a range of reforms to reduce costs and ensure that not so many are passed on to consumers. 

On Wednesday, authorities announced a package of measures aimed at controlling costs. “These measures will improve medical care and contain rising costs in the healthcare system”, the Federal Council said.

Coordinated networks

These care networks are seen as a way to reduce unnecessary medical services. 

“They bring together health professionals from several disciplines to provide ‘all-in-one’ medical care. They improve coordination throughout the treatment chain, for example when various specialists are caring for an elderly person with several chronic diseases”, Federal Council said in a statement.

Hospitals, pharmacies, and various therapists would be attached to the network, and all treatments “will be invoiced at once, as if it were a single supplier”.

Right now, all service providers invoice insurance carriers separately, which adds to administrative costs; the new system is also believed to provide a better oversight and control, and eliminate unnecessary or redundant medical treatments, Health Minister Alain Berset said during a press conference in Bern on Wednesday.

Faster and cheaper access to medicines

The government also wants to guarantee “fast and as inexpensive as possible access to expensive innovative medicines”.

To achieve this, it wants to “anchor in the law” an already widely-used practice: to conclude pricing agreements with pharmaceutical companies. It would mean that drug manufacturers would have to reimburse a portion of the price to insurers.

“This measure makes it possible to guarantee rapid access to these drugs, while limiting their price”, authorities said.

Electronic invoicing

Another measure will require all providers of inpatient and outpatient services to send their invoices to insurance companies in electronic form — seen as a quicker, more effective and cheaper way to transmit billing information.

These measures “will make it possible to curb the rise in costs,” the Federal Council said, adding that “it is not yet possible to estimate the concrete extent of these savings, which would depend on how the health system will implement the measures”.

It is now up to the MPs to debate these proposals.

READ MORE: Why Swiss health premiums are set to rise — and what you can do about it