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Switzerland: Access to Medical Cannabis Broadened, Pilot Projects for Nonmedical Cannabis to Be Launched

(Apr. 22, 2021) On March 19, 2021, the Swiss parliament approved an amendment to the Swiss Narcotics Act that allows broader access to cannabis for medical use. The amendment is subject to an optional referendum. (Swiss Constitution art. 141.) The deadline for collecting enough signatures to hold a referendum is July 8, 2021. In addition, on March 31, 2021, the Swiss Federal Council (the Swiss government) adopted an ordinance that specifies the requirements for pilot projects on the controlled distribution of cannabis for nonmedical use. The amendment to the Narcotics Act that allows these pilot projects was adopted by the Swiss parliament on September 25, 2020. Both the amendment and the ordinance will enter into force on May 15, 2021, and will remain in force for 10 years.

Background on Cannabis Legislation

In general, consuming, possessing, cultivating, importing, producing, and placing cannabis on the market is illegal in Switzerland. (Narcotics Act art. 19.) Consumption of less than 10 grams of cannabis is considered a negligible amount and does not constitute a crime. (Art. 19b.) Before the amendment, the use of cannabis for medical purposes required an exceptional license from the Federal Office of Public Health, which the treating physician had to apply for. (Art. 8, para. 5.) In 2019, 3,000 exceptional licenses were granted.

Content of the Amendment on Medical Cannabis

The amendment allows the cultivation, import, production, and placement of cannabis on the market for medical use. (Amendment of March 19, art. 8, para. 1d.) The use of cannabis for medical purposes will no longer require an exceptional license from the Federal Office of Public Health; instead, the treating physician is to decide whether to prescribe cannabis. Physicians must collect pseudonymized data from the treatment with cannabis. (Art. 18f, para. 2.) The Federal Office of Public Health is to keep a register with the data for scientific evaluation and statistical purposes. (Art. 18f, para. 1, art. 8b.)

Pilot Studies for Nonmedical Use of Cannabis

The aim of the pilot projects is to explore within a scientific framework the advantages and disadvantages of the controlled distribution of cannabis. In particular, such projects are intended to test and document consequences on the physical and mental health of users and their ability to perform tasks; document their consumption habits and socioeconomic characteristics; and measure the effects on the local illegal drug market, on youth protection, and on public safety and order. (Ordinance art. 2.)

Pilot projects are authorized by the Federal Office of Public Health after consultation with the affected cantons (states) and municipalities. (Amendment of Sept. 25, art. 8a.) They must

  • be limited in time, locality, and scope;
  • make it possible to gain insights on how the new rules affect how cannabis is used for nonmedical purposes and how it affects users’ health;
  • not affect public health, the safety of youth, public safety, or public order; and
  • use cannabis products of Swiss origin that comply with Swiss rules on organic farming. (Art. 8a, para. 1; Ordinance art. 7, 8.)

The ordinance specifies that pilot projects must be limited in duration to five years and may be extended once for a period of two years. (Ordinance art. 5, para. 2.) No more than 5,000 participants are allowed per study. (Art. 6.) Participants must

  • prove that they have previously consumed cannabis;
  • reside in the canton where the pilot project is taking place; and
  • give written consent to participate. (Art. 14, para. 1.)

Minors, people incapable of judgment, pregnant or nursing women, and people who suffer from a disease for which the consumption of cannabis is contraindicated are prohibited from participating. (Art. 14, para. 2.)

Advertising cannabis products is prohibited. (Art. 12.) Cannabis products for the pilot projects may be sold only by qualified personnel and must be secured against theft. (Art. 13.) Participants are to receive an amount equivalent to their usual monthly consumption, up to a maximum of 10 grams THC per month. (Art. 16, para. 1.) They may not receive the products for free. The price must take into account the active substance content and the local black market price. (Art. 16, para. 3.) Consumption is limited to personal use and may not take place in public. Violations may result in sanctions or in an exclusion from the study in cases of repeated violations. (Art. 17.) Study participants are to receive a participant card. (Art. 18.) The health of the participants must be monitored. (Art. 19.)

The company performing the pilot project must update the Federal Office of Public Health yearly on the progress of the pilot project. Results must be documented in a research report, which must be sent to the Federal Office of Public Health. (Art. 32.) The Federal Office of Public Health is to inform the public periodically on the progress. (Art. 33.) It must also evaluate the research reports and write a report on the need for amending the Narcotics Act for the Federal Council, which will in turn inform the Swiss parliament. (Art. 34.)