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EXPLAINED: What are Switzerland's current rules on cannabis?

Sandra Sparrowhawk
Sandra Sparrowhawk - [email protected]
EXPLAINED: What are Switzerland's current rules on cannabis?
The use of cannabis in Switzerland is subject to strict regulations. Photo by Aphiwat chuangchoem.

As the latest cannabis trial is set to start in Basel-Country this month, here is where Switzerland currently stands on the legalisation of cannabis.

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Switzerland has been moving tentatively in the direction of the legalisation of cannabis for several years and in 2021, two thirds of those surveyed by the Federal Office of Public Health were in favour of such legalisation.

On Mary 15th, 2021, an amendment to the Federal Narcotics Act came into force allowing pilot trials involving the dispensing of cannabis for non-medicinal purposes.

These trials are intended to create the basis for the future legal regulation and have since started (or will do so shortly) in the regions of Basel-City (WeedCare), Basel-Country (Grashaus Projects BL), Geneva (La Cannabinothèque), Lausanne (Cann-L), Zurich (ZüriCan) as well as Berne, Bienne and Lucerne (SCRIPT).

The various organisers involved in the pilot trials plan to distribute cannabis in Swiss pharmacies, cannabis social clubs, and non-profit stores, as well as via other distribution channels to learn more about both the advantages and disadvantages of controlled access to cannabis in the country.

The first results are, however, not expected until 2024 at the earliest, the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) states.

So, what do we know thus far?

Where have pilot trials already begun?

ZüriCan, which aims to “investigate the extent to which regulated sale, supplemented by advice, can enhance both knowledge and behaviour in respect of the lower-risk forms of cannabis, and whether this can be implemented”, kicked off on March 21st, 2023, and concludes on October 20th 2026.

The city of Lausanne kickstarted its pilot trial, Cann-L, which draws its inspiration from a similar venture in Quebec — currently considered the ‘gold standard’ for legalising cannabis in public health terms — in July 2023. The trial will last until June 2027.

La Cannabinothèque in Geneva — a single secure authorised to provide regulated cannabis access on an association model — is run by Association ChanGE and began in June 2023. The trial will conclude in June 2027.

Meanwhile, Basel-City’s cannabis pilot trial WeedCare focuses on the regulated sale of cannabis in pharmacies and will run until March 2025.

Simiarly, SCRIPT - the pilot trial held in Berne, Bienne, and Lucerne – began in October 2023 and will last until April 2026.

The only pilot trial yet to kick off is Basel-Country’s Grashaus Projects BL, which aims to address whether “the structured and controlled sale of high-quality, organically grown cannabis by trained sales personnel in cannabis shops can shift consumption towards a reduction in the harm caused, a reduction in illegal use and the associated problems, and improvements from a health (physical), psychological and social perspective – overall a higher quality of life.”

The trial is due to start on November 13th, 2023, and last until November 13th, 2028.

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Why did Switzerland decide to implement cannabis trials?

Though growing, importing, producing, and selling cannabis is not allowed in Switzerland, the consumption of cannabis is still widespread leading to a thriving black market. This unfortunately means that user safety is not regulated and therefore not guaranteed.

Because of this, the Swiss Parliament decided to amend the Narcotics Act to test the impact of new regulatory approaches to the way non-medicinal cannabis is handled in Switzerland for a limited 10-year period.

What type of cannabis can be tested out as part of these pilot trials?

As part of the pilot trials, both unprocessed products (such as cannabis flowers) and processed ones (such as hashish and cannabis extracts) may be sold. Cannabis products mixed with additives (e.g., solutions containing cannabis) can also be dispensed.

According to FOPH, cannabis products may be designed to be smoked, inhaled, vaporised, eaten or drunk (e.g., edibles).

All products that will be dispensed as part of Switzerland-based pilot trials will be subject to stringent quality requirements (organic farming whenever possible).

READ MORE: What are Switzerland's rules for cannabis consumption?

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How will the price be determined?

The price will need to consider the THC levels contained in the particular cannabis product and be “roughly in line with prices on the local black market”. To put it simply, the stronger the product, the higher the price.

However, the selling price should not be substantially lower than the local black-market price to avoid participants reselling (bear in mind, participants will need to cover the cost themselves as part of the trial).

At the same time, the price will need to make the product attractive to participants, lest they choose a black-market alternative.

Will the trials also test cannabis for medical purposes?

No. The pilot trials look at the use of cannabis by adults for recreational purposes. They do not cover medically prescribed cannabis use for medicinal purposes.  A separate revision of the law is currently under way regarding the medicinal use of cannabis.

As of August 1st, the use of cannabis for medical purposes is 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. 

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Who can participate in these trials?

Individuals may take part in the pilot trials if they:

  • are of age and capable of judgement;
  • prove that they already consume cannabis;
  • are resident in the canton where the relevant pilot trial is being conducted;
  • agree to the terms of the scientific study and provide written consent to participation in the pilot trial.

You may not participate if you are:

  • a minor or person not capable of judgement;
  • a woman who is pregnant or breastfeeding;
  • a person who is suffering from a disease diagnosed by a doctor where cannabis is contraindicated.

Where can I sign up to take part?

Both private and public organisations will be in charge of planning and conducting the pilot trials.

If you wish to partake, you will need to contact the organisation that oversees the pilot trial in your region. You can find the organisers listed here.

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

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Where will the cannabis be sold?

Depending on the trial, cannabis products will be sold at various points of sale (pharmacies, specialist shops, cannabis social clubs, and similar).

It is crucial that the points of sale employ well-trained, knowledgeable staff and have appropriate infrastructure in place to prevent theft.

Can I grow cannabis for the trials?

If you wish to grow cannabis and manufacture cannabis products to sell as part of these trials, you will need to acquire an exceptional licence from the FOPH.

In order to be considered, you will need to get in touch with the organisation in charge of conducting the pilot trial in question (see the organisers list above). Further information on the requirements can be accessed here.

Can I cultivate cannabis for personal consumption?

Outside of these trials, however, cultivating your own marijuana plants is not entirely prohibited in Switzerland.

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.

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