Switzerland was the first European country to introduce the idea of legal weed sales via a pilot program; where are things now?
Weed legalization in the EU
The story isn’t new; in fact, we’ve been talking about it for years now. I first covered the possibility of Switzerland holding pilot programs for legal weed sales, back in 2020; when the government first greenlit the trials. The original idea was to test out recreational sales to decipher whether the government should create new cannabis legislation.
But then, things heated up in Europe. Malta became the first EU country, and first European country, to legalize cannabis in some capacity; but not a sales market. Just cannabis clubs (associations) and home-growing. This was followed by Germany making a huge claim, that it too would legalize cannabis, full sales market and all. Of course, the big proclamation was met with disapproval by overlording body, the EU Commission. And this led to Germany doing a pretty intense about-face.
Since that time, Luxembourg followed suit with Malta; legalizing use, but nixing any kind of sales market or associations; and the Netherlands announced its own desire for limited legal recreational sales (since current sales are not technically legal). Likewise, the Czech Republic is also looking to legalize, and also wants that coveted full market. We don’t, however, know much about how that country plans to deal with the EU. It has managed to keep its planning under wraps; likely to avoid a situation like Germany.
We don’t know what exactly the EU is saying, either. We do know that two countries have legalized without instituting sales markets; and that Germany was made to move away from one, because of a lack of EU approval. We know the Netherlands has operated for years as an above-board market; but without any real control by the government. Much of this is understood to be related to legal and contractual obligations of the parent body; which means its hard to know what must happen, for this to change.
Germany scaled back plans immensely in the end. What started out as a plan for an open market, morphed into cannabis clubs, similar to what Malta established. Alongside this, the country is working on a pilot program for legal sales; much like Switzerland. The latter, unlike cannabis clubs, requires EU approval before it can go into effect.
Switzerland is in Europe, but not a part of the EU; which means not beholden to EU regulation. Whereas Germany, Malta, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, and long-standing cannabis hub, the Netherlands, all have to work around the EU, Switzerland does not. Even so, the country didn’t dive right into a full legalization; but instead instituted a pilot program to test out selling weed. If not for the fact that the country made a statement to legalize before this even started; it might have been a ‘will it or won’t it’ scenario. Now, it just seems like a compulsory move, for something that’s definitely coming.
Buying legal weed in Switzerland
In 2020, Switzerland passed a bill to allow cannabis pilot programs. This created a legal update to the country’s Federal Act on Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances, which officially went into effect in spring of 2021. According to the legislation, trials can be held in the country, for the next 10 years, as a part of different research projects. All projects must get approved independently.
One of the first sites in Switzerland to get approved to run dispensaries as a part of the pilot program, is the city of Zurich. This particular program is meant to last 3.5 years. The study, called ‘Cannabis With Responsibility,’ looks to study “the effects of purchasing selected cannabis products from controlled cultivation under regulated conditions on the consumption and health of the participants. In addition, different models of regulated cannabis procurement are to be compared with one another.”
Only Zurich residents can be a part of this study. The study is run by the city, together with the Psychiatric University Clinic Zurich. It allows for 2,100 people; meaning its not for all Zurich residents, but a small buying community. Each participant has the option to pick a dispensary, pharmacy, or social club (21 points to choose from); but can only access their chosen spot.
Zurich is not the first part of Switzerland to do this. In fact, Basel got its pilot program approved, in 2022. But it didn’t start at that time. Issues of legalities held up all potential trials until 2023, as regulators had to get around their own laws of not being able to buy the cannabis. No program got underway until March of this year. The Basel study is smaller than Zurich, only allowing for 400 participants. This study is two years long, and involves nine pharmacies.
A third location was approved in Geneva, with similar research goals. This particular program is set to be three years, and will include a total of about 1,000 participants. The trials will be monitored by the addiction services section of the University Hospitals, as well as the sociology department at University of Geneva.
Yet another program is geared at the cities of Bern, Lucerne, and Biel. This study, called ‘SCRIPT– Research on sale of cannabis in pharmacies’, includes 1,091 participants. This program is meant to “evaluate what impact a regulated not-for-profit sale of cannabis in pharmacies combined with related advisory services may have on cannabis consumption.” This is a two-year trial, supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation. In reality, all the trials do about the same thing.
So, how’s it going?
These are some of the first programs to start gearing up in Switzerland, with likely more to follow. It’s early days, of course, so official information is limited thus far. In terms of how well they’re working out, and what ideas they’re bringing up; the public is not privy to such information. This makes it difficult to know what to expect for the future.
In that sense, there is no way to report on how things are going on a large scale. There are, however, a few articles that cover the news of it, while incorporating some personal stories. And this gives us a little bit of insight. It doesn’t tell us a whole lot, but for now, it’s what we have to go on.
A Euronews article from back in March, quotes a pharmacist Lucas Meister of Basel, who said, “People are happy, since for the first time they can buy it legally.” In the same article, a resident of the city by the name of Paul, who is taking part in the program, said it was 1,000 times better than procuring the drug on the street. He went on to say that he wants cannabis, not chemicals out of China.
A July article from swissinfo.ch, also chimes into the conversation. As per the article, a 40-year-old user who goes by the name of E.S. in the article, stated, “As a conscious consumer, I want to be able to decide what kind of cannabis to use. Like a wine enthusiast, I want to discover the many varieties without depending on the black market.” E.S. at the time of the statement, was already enlisted in the SCRIPT program. However, it should be noted that the statement was made, before any official sales started.
We will obviously know way more as time goes on. For now, all we have are comments in articles by purveyors or users; and there aren’t a million of them. It should be remembered, a pilot program is a study; and we are now in the data collection phase. It’s not standard for study investigators to release information on a study until the whole thing – or a part – is completed. This means it could be some time until we get a more formal answer on what Switzerland thinks of its own program.
Having said this, it’s best to remember that Switzerland already voted to legalize cannabis within the government. The pilot legislation was designed before this happened, likely as a way to ease the population into legal sales; since there is still a lot of push back against legal weed, from years of global smear campaigns. A lot can be investigated on the matter, sure, but the truth is; we already know a lot.
Technically, all Switzerland needs to do is be realistic with things like taxes, regulatory costs, THC limits, and pricing; something not seen in most other legal weed markets. In fact, with the propensity of opening new markets in the US, without paying attention to the mistakes of already-existent markets; it seems the bigger issue is not being greedy; not, not knowing what to do or what to expect. In that sense, let’s hope Switzerland makes better choices than the US states or Canada.
Is there any chance the country will make a 180° turn? It’s not impossible, I suppose, but highly unlikely. The EU is becoming weed-friendly, along with the rest of the world; with countries like Germany, happy to open legal markets at the drop of a dime. Right now, should Switzerland want it, it can be the only real legal market of Europe. But that won’t last forever, and the country is already wasting its time for this. Regardless of this failing; it’s unlikely Switzerland will change course in general.
How long will it take for Switzerland to drop the pilot programs and just institute a regular legal weed market? It’s hard to say. The pilot programs were supposed to inform a legalization; not the other way around. So Switzerland isn’t going by its own book. Whereas the country could have taken the opportunity of Germany failing, to corner the entire legal European recreational market; so far, it hasn’t. In my opinion, this is kind of a shame.
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