Cannabis has always had an important place in the cultures of the world, with an image as virtuous as it is disparaged. Indeed, despite the psychotropic effect of its main molecule THC, many people recognize the medicinal benefits of cannabis. However, today, the vast majority of countries continue to prohibit it.
It is one of the narcotic products as categorized by the United Nations Single Convention. This convention strongly limits the possibilities of production and trade of narcotics. Switzerland, on the other hand, has strictly prohibited cannabis in its law since 1951. According to this law, it is forbidden to cultivate, produce or sell cannabis on Swiss territory. In 1975, this law was extended to punish even the consumption. But things have been moving in the opposite direction since the year 2000.
So, to help you understand the evolution of the laws and know the current regulations around cannabis, as well as what is called “legal cannabis”, we have designed this little guide as complete as possible.
Nowadays, legal Swiss cannabis can be found on every street corner. In Switzerland, you can find cannabidiol products at Coop or Denner. Today, even some gas stations or kiosks offer Swiss cannabis products. However, it is in specialized CBD stores (online or not) such as uWeed that you will find legal cannabis in Switzerland of very high quality.
The CBD market generated a turnover of about CHF 60 million (more or less 54 million euros) in 2017. According to the Tages-Anzeiger, this growth will continue. In fact, forecasts for the Swiss legal cannabis market are to reach CHF 320 million (plus or minus €288 million) by 2027.
The law on narcotics (LStup) and its ordinances contain the provisions for the management of narcotics and psychotropic substances. It also deals with the distribution of tasks between the national and cantonal authorities.
First of all, there are two main types of cannabis currently consumed on the market:
Products containing a level of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) higher than 1%, considered as drugs, and therefore prohibited by the Swiss law on narcotics and psychotropic substances. This is what is more commonly known as cannabis, whether it is recreational or medicinal. It is sold on the black and illegal market.
Products containing less than 1% THC, commonly labelled as “legal cannabis” or “CBD cannabis”. The term “CBD” (referring to the Cannabidiol molecule) is not very technical and remains generic, as some of these products may contain other cannabinoids (CBG, CBDa, etc). These products with a limited THC content are legal in Switzerland although their marketing is regulated.
Obviously, when we talk about cannabis, the words decriminalization, legalization, decriminalization, are usually associated. To understand the issues surrounding cannabis, here are the differences to remember between these different terms.
Decriminalizing the possession and use of cannabis means that it is no longer considered a crime. The act remains prohibited, but the sanctions are only administrative, such as a fine. This is the case in Switzerland for the consumption of a small amount of cannabis, i.e. a maximum of 10g of possession for an adult. A person in Switzerland can therefore possess up to 10 grams of cannabis and only be fined in case of control.
Legalization means the removal of a ban. In the case of legalization of cannabis (as in the Netherlands), the consumption, production and sale of cannabis are no longer sanctioned, neither criminally nor administratively. Legalization does not mean absolute liberalization or free access. Be careful though, even if a substance becomes legal, its possession and trade can still be regulated.
Regulation refers to the creation and enforcement of rules to govern the use, possession and trade of cannabis. This may include setting a minimum age for consumption or setting rules for controlling production or sale. Penal or administrative sanctions may be imposed for any breach of these rules, as in other sectors such as food, for example.
While the second half of the 20th century was rather unfavourable to the legalization of recreational cannabis, it seems that Switzerland has been in a more progressive position since the early 2000s. At the time of writing (May 2022), the use of recreational cannabis containing more than 1% THC remains illegal in Switzerland. However, there has been considerable progress in recent years, which we summarize below.
In 2013, Switzerland brought cannabis under an ordinance of its Federal Law on Narcotics (LStup). Consumption and possession of less than 10 grams of cannabis is now considered a simple offence and punishable by a fine of CHF 100 for adult consumers (art. 19b, para. 2, LStup). Minors remain subject to the criminal law for minors.
This decriminalization is the first step by Switzerland towards a relaxation of its policy towards recreational cannabis (with a THC level above 1% and below 20%).
According to the Swiss Addiction Monitoring, approximately 7.7% of the population has used cannabis at least once in the past 12 months. The Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) states that 4% have used cannabis in the last 30 days. Cannabis is the most frequently used drug in Switzerland. About one third of the population aged 15 and over have already experimented with this drug.
It appears that repression has never been effective in curbing cannabis use, let alone in eliminating the black market.
As a result, Swiss lawmakers concluded that other regulatory options needed to be explored. At its March 31, 2021 meeting, the Federal Council passed the Cannabis Pilot Trials Ordinance, which sets a detailed framework for the dispensing of cannabis products for non-medical use. Prescription medical use is not included in these trials, which we will discuss at greater length later in this article.
On May 15, 2021, an amendment to the LStup went into effect, allowing pilot testing for the controlled sale of cannabis for recreational purposes. This amendment will remain in effect for ten years, and serves as the legal basis for the implementation of scientific cannabis pilot tests.
The pilot tests will allow consumers to legally purchase a wide range of cannabis products. The latter will have to meet high quality standards, with strict transparency from seed to sale, and must be organically grown (which by definition excludes indoor flower cultivation).
The objective of these studies is to broaden the knowledge about the advantages and disadvantages of controlled access to cannabis. They should facilitate the examination and documentation of the health consequences and consumption patterns of users in a scientific setting. These studies will also provide data on the effects on the local illicit drug market, as well as on the protection of minors and children.
Pilot tests must meet specific requirements:
To host these pilot tests, a number of Swiss cities have been selected such as Basel (the first city to be accepted), Bern, Geneva, Zurich and Lausanne. In the fall of 2022, Zurich, the largest city in Switzerland, will allow the sale of recreational cannabis in pharmacies but also in Social Clubs.
For example, in 2022, the pilot trial in Lausanne ‘Cann-L’ will be launched for 4 years, with the aim of measuring the effects of such a consumption model on health as well as on society. The trial is called Cann-L for “Cannabis Lausanne – The responsible alternative to illegal cannabis”.
Addiction Suisse is the partner chosen by the city to lead the scientific part. The supervision of the sale of cannabis is entrusted to a non-profit association. It bears the same name as the trial: Cann-L.
On the sidelines of the pilot projects, on September 25, 2020, Heinz Siegenthaler, member of the Swiss National Council, filed a new parliamentary initiative. Its aim is to impose a new comprehensive regulation for the cultivation, production, trade and consumption of cannabis containing THC (>1%) in accordance with the recommendations of the Federal Narcotics Commission.
The main objectives of his initiative are:
The reasoning accompanying the original text of the initiative describes an inconsistency of cannabis prohibition based on current scientific research, especially when compared to other harmful substances such as tobacco and alcohol. The Federal Council simply considered that the LStup has not fulfilled its objective of protecting the population, given the more than 300,000 regular cannabis users in Switzerland.
A flourishing black market, with a lack of quality controls, leads to a growing risk of “cut” products containing toxic and artificial substances. This justifies the replacement of the current prohibition by a fully regulated cannabis market, meeting the requirements of Swiss addiction and health policy.
On April 28, 2021, the Health Committee of the Swiss National Council voted in favor of controlled legalization of cannabis. This is the first major political hurdle of the parliamentary initiative. This latest political development around cannabis legislation is proof of the urgency to regulate this growing market for the general public. The limited view of cannabis as an allegedly harmful drug and the stigmatization of its users are giving way to recognition of its significant medical potential, as well as the promising economic growth it could generate through recreational and industrial use.
With its already progressive regulatory framework regarding THC thresholds compared to the rest of Europe and a liberalization of cannabis for medical purposes, Switzerland is in an excellent position to strengthen its leadership position in Europe.
In Switzerland, the slow administrative process as well as expensive procedures to obtain medical cannabis have pushed patients to the black market. This health problem has led to an amendment of the cannabis law on March 19, 2021.
The regulations on the use of medical products and medical devices are set out in the following laws:
The Federal Law on Drugs and Medical Devices (Therapeutic Products Act, TPA.)
The Ordinance on the Ordinance on Pharmaceutical Products (VAM)
The Ordinance on Advertising of Pharmaceutical Products (AWV)
The Marketing Authorization Ordinance (MAO)
These laws and regulations apply to therapeutic products, which include medical cannabis products.
Ready-to-use medical products can only be placed on the market if they are authorized by Swissmedic. The application for a marketing authorization for medical cannabis products must include, for example, detailed documentation of the results of physical, chemical and biological or microbiological tests, as well as the results of pharmacological and toxicological tests and clinical trials. The applicant must prove that the medical products are of high quality, safe and effective.
To date, only one cannabis-based medicine is fully authorized in Switzerland with a THC content of over 1%: Sativex®. It can be prescribed without special authorization for spastic convulsions in patients with multiple sclerosis.
Cannabis-based medicines can also be used to treat :
The manufacture of medical products and pharmaceutical derivatives (e.g. dyes, preservatives), the manufacture of which requires an authorization, must comply with the recognized rules of Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP). The Ordinance on the Licensing of Medicinal Products (MPLO) is subject to the GMP guidelines of the European Union. Thus, in Switzerland, the GMP guidelines of the European Union are applicable.
The GMP guidelines provide the minimum requirements that a manufacturer of medical products must meet to ensure that their products are of consistently high enough quality for their intended use.
Companies domiciled in Switzerland with a valid establishment permit for the manufacture of medical products can apply to Swissmedic for a GMP certificate via its online portal eGov GMP-GDP.
Medical cannabis (not to be confused with recreational cannabis) is therefore also becoming increasingly popular for its benefits. Measures have been taken to allow its commercialization, and therefore its purchase by individuals, either in the form of medicine or in the form of cannabis flowers (weed).
In order to obtain medical cannabis, you must first obtain a prescription from your doctor, who will support your request to the Federal Office of Public Health (OFSP). Please note that special permits can only be issued by doctors practicing in Switzerland and for patients residing in Switzerland.
Once the special permit for the purchase of medical cannabis has been obtained, it is possible to buy it in pharmacies, either as a medicine (Sativex®) or as flowers. Beware, even as a medical treatment with a special permit, cannabis contains THC: it is therefore not possible to drive after its consumption, nor to travel with it in other countries where the legislation is not as flexible.
As seen previously, there are multiple constraints to selling cannabis. There are just as many for its production.
Exceptional authorizations can be given by the FOPH for the cultivation of cannabis with a THC content of more than 1%. Such authorizations are only issued for purposes related to a limited medical application, scientific research or the development of medicines.
Concerning medical cannabis products, the rules are not the same, as they are dictated by SwissMedic directly. Only this organization can validate a medical cannabis product.
A request for authorization to cultivate recreational cannabis (THC > 1%) for pilot tests must be submitted to the FOPH. Once the application has been studied, the Federal Office of Public Health will decide if the project is feasible.
To become a producer of recreational cannabis within the framework of the pilot tests, it is necessary :
The production of hemp must be entirely made in Switzerland
It is compulsory that the cannabis does not exceed 20% THC as well as respecting a certain number of quality criteria (art. 9 OEPStup).
In order to make the quality of the plants and their THC concentration homogeneous it is necessary to produce indoors. In outside, many external elements can influence the parameters of the plants.
Home production of cannabis for personal consumption remains prohibited, as it cannot meet the requirements set by the FOPH for the cultivation of recreational cannabis.
The cultivation of cannabis therefore remains exclusive to professionals licensed by the Swiss state. Swiss citizens cannot grow their own cannabis at home for the moment, even in small doses. However, this allows everyone to buy only from highly specialized and controlled outlets, and to benefit only from very high quality products.
Light” cannabis, better known as CBD, is cannabis that contains less than 1% THC (the psychotropic molecule). It is also generally called legal cannabis or Swiss legal cannabis, as the CBD molecule does not cause a high. The effects of CBD are widely acclaimed, both by consumers and the medical profession.
The consumption of legal cannabis has been increasing rapidly in the last few years, leading to the opening of numerous online CBD stores.
Although CBD is a legal substance, there are still many regulations and restrictions on how companies can market it. In addition, research is advancing strongly every year to further demonstrate the benefits of Swiss legal cannabis. For more information on the specifics of the CBD law in Switzerland, you can find our complete guide “Is CBD legal in Switzerland”.