A Former Cannabis Paradise in Switzerland is Rising Again

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Because Switzerland is the only Central European country that is not a member of the EU, Swiss drug-policy works slightly different than in the surrounding countries. Twenty years ago, the discrepancy was even greater because cannabis was nearly legalized in Switzerland.

At that time, resourceful cannabis lovers recognized a gap in the Swiss Narcotics Act which allowed cannabis to be grown and sold for personal use or on a much larger scale. The law did not consider THC content as decisive for legal persecution, but the intention of the cultivation was a prerequisite for the legal or illegal status of leaves and flowers. Thus, the legendary “Hanflädelis” were opened in and around Bern, and later throughout Switzerland, where Swiss in- and outdoor weed and hashish were available at moderate prices.

The legislative gap made the cultivation of cannabis legal for anyone over eighteen. Only the processing of the drug, as well as the sale and consumption of the THC-containing parts of the plant, required a state-approved exemption license. However, this document was relatively easy to obtain for the purpose of producing perfumes or brewing low-THC hemp beer. The dried herbs were sewn into jute bags and sold as fragrance pads for aromatherapy. The end customer was advised not open the bags, but only to sniff them. Effectively, the chain from the seed to the finished flower was completely legal. After a report from the Swiss State Drug Commission EKDF — which had recommended the legalization of consumption, trade and cultivation of cannabis — the small multinational non-UN state opted to regulate cannabis completely.

Only One Step Was Lacking

On 9 March 2001, the Federal Council adopted a recommendation for the revision of the Narcotics Act. The Council of States, as one of the two law-giving chambers, voted for the recommendation by a large majority. The other chamber, the National Council, followed suit with a similar vote. But since 2002, Switzerland has been under pressure from the United Nations (UN). If Switzerland wanted to become the last Western country to be UN-member, it had to abide by the “Single Convention” of 1961 and choose between legal cannabis and full UN membership.

The big neighbors of France and Germany also began to voice increasing complaints about cannabis tourism and smuggling. In September 2002, Switzerland became a member of the UN; the National Council bent on international pressure shortly after by rejecting the Federal Council’s cannabis bill in early 2003.

In 2004, the topic disappeared completely from the political agenda, which lead to criticism from all Swiss political camps. Only Italy, Germany, and France were happy when the Swiss Police destroyed cannabis fields after almost ten years of toleration. The Hanflädlis and cannabis fields slowly disappeared, as only the cultivation for personal use was still tolerated by the authorities.

After the unexpected policy change, a strong movement formed which lead to a federal ballot initiative to legalize cannabis. But the financial resources of the campaign were limited and the support of the population was not yet large enough to incite change. In December 2008, the marijuana initiative was rejected with only 36% support. After the defeat, the disappointment was all the greater when the reform of the Narcotics Act from 2009-2013 defined cannabis cultivation like most narcotic acts in the world — illegal.  The large number of Swiss small-scale growers were now operating outside of the law and cannabis seeds were suddenly illegal. After the defeat and the reform of the Narcotics Act, legalization advocates remained in a kind of shock stasis – the country had slipped from the second most liberal country to the rear European midfield. Where huge fields once flourished and each growshop offered cuttings and dozens of strains in the assortment, now a single plant was a reason for a search warrant.

On the brighter side, consumption and possession of up to ten grams of cannabis is no longer prosecuted, but instead punished with penalties. Depending on the jurisdiction and additional fees, this could be be as much as several hundred dollars for simply smoking a joint.

A Wind of Change is Blowing in the Big Cities

Because hemp and cannabis have a much higher degree of acceptance in Swiss society than in most other European countries, there has been a new resistance against the cannabis repression in civil society over the last three years. A total of seven large cities, including Geneva, Bern, Zurich, Solothurn, and Basel, have applied for cannabis pilot projects.

Leading the way is Geneva-based Professor Cattacin, who had launched the discussion with his proposal on Cannabis Social Clubs as early as 2013. The city project is divided into three areas: medical distribution, adult-use distribution, and addressing the involvement of young people with existing, problematic consummate patterns. The idea behind the project is to help young people replace their heavy consumption patterns with a moderate and conscious relationship with cannabis. While both chambers of parliament expressed a desire for the elaboration of pilot projects for medical and adult-use cannabis, the involvement of youngsters is a matter of political controversy on the federal level.

On the other hand, the current decriminalization policy has led to a flood of tickets since its introduction in 2013. Currently, there are many indications that the Confederation, after years of hesitation, may soon give some cities the green light for their cannabis pilots.

Another Recently Discovered Law Gap Creates Hope

In September 2016, a law student ordered to pay a fine for the possession of eight grams of cannabis was released by the District Court of Zurich. The accused and his legal adviser were likely the first Swiss citizens to deeply examine the revised Act on the Narcotic Drugs Act (BetmG). They discovered that only the consumption of cannabis was a finable offense.

Article 19 of the BetmG confirms that the mere possession of small quantities of cannabis products up to ten grams had been wrongly fined since 2013:

“Anyone who deliberately consumes narcotics without authorization or who commits an offense within the meaning of Article 19 for his own consumption shall be punished with penance.” (Article 19a, para. 1)

“A person who prepares only a small amount of an anesthetic for his or her own consumption, or provides for the simultaneous and joint consumption of a person of more than 18 years free of charge, is not punishable.” (Article 19b, para. 1)

Not punishable, no conviction. This argument was accepted by the Zurich Municipal Judge, who told the accused that the eight grams were not illegal, and according to the BetmG, not in any conflict with the law from 2013.

Swiss media are already speculating that this judgment could have an impact on the whole of Switzerland. According to the Swiss BetmG, not even the handing off of a small amount is enough to impose a fine, as long as it is not consumed. “Only consumption can be punished, but not the possession of marginal amounts of cannabis for personal consumption,” Peter Albrecht, retired criminal prosecutor and former President of the Basel City Criminal Court, stated on “Switzerland on Sunday.”

Swiss Industrial Hemp May Contain up to 1% THC

In addition to the above-mentioned efforts and initiatives, legal CBD buds with up to 1% THC content are legal on federal level. Unlike in the EU, where a limit of 0.3% applies, industrial hemp may contain up to 1% of the psychoactive cannabis component in Switzerland. At the Cannatrade Zurich, several companies who already grow CBD plants according to medical standards in greenhouses presented their products; offerings like concentrates, CBD-rich flower, and CBD-balsam were demonstrated. Recently, a tobacco substitute made from CBD-rich hemp flowers received federal approval. What could prove to be a good product for tobacco cessation or as a tobacco substitute for consumers is causing headaches to Swiss narcotic agents, because a CBD joint looks and smells like its THC counterpart. Only an experienced cannabis enthusiast, which is probably a rare species among Swiss Police Officers, would be in a position to distinguish a CBD joint from a classic reefer.

About Author

Michael Knodt is an expert on cannabis politics and cannabis culture across Europe. Born in North Germany, Michael has been living in Berlin since 1990. He initially studied history and journalism before receiving his certification as a carpenter. Since then, Michael has made regular visits to countries where cannabis is cultivated, such as Jamaica and Morocco. He has worked as a freelancer for Weedmaps, Vice Magazine Germany, Sensi Seeds and numerous German-language cannabis magazines since 2004. From 2005 to 2013, Michael was the Editor-in-Chief of Germanys biggest cannabis periodical. He also is the face and presenter of the most popular program on cannabis prohibition and just launched a new channel called "DerMicha." Aside from his journalistic work, Michael is a cannabis patient, activist, sought-after speaker on conferences and congresses, and a father of two.

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