Last week the first pilot project trial for the legalised sales of adult-use cannabis in Basel, Switzerland was approved by the Swiss Government. This means that the first legal sales of adult-use cannabis in Europe since prohibition began will be achieved by late summer this year*.
Last Tuesday, the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) officially announced it has granted approval for a pilot project allowing for legal sales of adult-use cannabis in Switzerland. The pilot project will enable almost 400 participants to purchase adult-use cannabis from selected pharmacies. This will eventually provide data on the consumption behaviours of cannabis users while purchasing from legal channels and inform on future legalisation efforts. This is the first of many pilot projects that will be set up in Switzerland over the coming years, after the legal foundation for them was set via an amendment to the country’s Narcotics Act in 2021. Such studies can be run by private or public groups but must include the involvement of research institutes.
Prohibition Partners explores the evolution of adult-use legalisation in Europe in depth in our recent Adult-Use Cannabis in Europe Report.
The trial in Basel
While the pilot trials in the Netherlands have been delayed until 2023, due in part to difficulties in setting up the novel supply chain, the leaders of trials in Switzerland have had years to prepare for this moment, meaning the start date of August is feasible.
Prohibition Partners spoke to Dr Lavinia Flückiger, co-leader of the study, for some details on the recently approved trial in Basel:
‘In 2016, the health department of the canton Basel-Stadt mandated the University Psychiatric Clinics Basel and the University of Basel to develop the framework for a pilot project. Our project was developed in 2016 and was approved by the local scientific ethics committee (EKNZ) in 2017. However, at that time the project could not start since the legal basis was not in place (and so the FOPH rejected it). Due to the change of the narcotics law in 2021, we updated the project and resubmitted it to the EKNZ. The EKNZ approved it in August 2021. Afterwards, the collaboration with Pure AG Holdings was fixed, and in April this year we got the FOPH approval. Recruitment of the participants is expected to start in August 2022 and the regulated cannabis access at the end of August.’Dr Lavinia Flukiger
These comments provide some insight into the nature of setting up such trials, and the fact that much of the work is being prompted by national governmental authorities rather than solely by private groups or research institutes.
Dr Lavinia Flückiger confirmed some key metrics relating to the trial:
- Four hundred current users will be able to sign up to the study from August and sales will begin at the end of the month.
- Nine pharmacies in Basel have been chosen as points of sale.
- Six products will be offered: four flower products and two hashish products, with maximum THC levels of 20% in order to comply with national law.
- The price will likely be in the range of €7.84–€11.76 (US$8.24–$12.37) per gram in order to compete with local black- market prices as required by the new laws.
- The sole supplier of both flower and hashish will be Swiss company Pure Holding AG.
Trials elsewhere in Switzerland
As explored in the Adult-Use Cannabis in Europe report, trials are being set up in many regions in Switzerland at the moment. There is no public list of trials-in-planning which is kept up to date. Leaders of these studies coordinate efforts through the Cannabis Interurban Working Group but the plans are not made public. The FOPH announced in 2021 that trials were planned for Bern, Basel, Geneva, Lausanne, St. Gallen and Zurich. Additional studies in the following cities are now known to be in planning stages: Biel, Lucerne, Winterthur and Olten. Trials begun in these cities have the capacity to expand to other cities.
Why pilot trials are being run instead of full legalisation
Many have asked why pilot trials need to be established when a large amount of data is being collected from the legislation that has been in place for years in the US, Canada and Uruguay. There are several reasons. Central to this is the fact that Switzerland is party to the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961, which requires signatories to ‘limit exclusively to medical and scientific purposes the production, manufacture, export, import, distribution, trade, use and possession of narcotics’ (art. 4).
An explanatory letter from the Swiss Federal Council in 2019 explained: ‘It can be assumed that scientific pilot tests within the meaning of (the Narcotics Act) correspond to the scientific objectives mentioned in the convention’ – meaning that Switzerland is conscious of its commitment to international law and sees the pilot trials as a means of reform while complying with its obligations.
Apart from obligations to international law, legalisation has received considerable political and public resistance. For example, in 2008, full decriminalisation was put to a referendum and was rejected by almost two thirds of voters. Several other attempts floundered in parliament, for example the initiative in 2018 from the Greens, which was rejected at the National Council by 104 to 86 votes. Attempts to set up pilot trials in 2016 were rejected on the basis that national law did not allow for this. The political will to evolve national drug policy has remained strong, however, and advocates have been hard at work in the country for years. Surveys run by the FOPH in 2021 found 65% support for full legalisation. Pilot trials are then seen as a more acceptable roll-out of sensible drug policy for many conservative groups. Despite this, even the sales of cannabis in pharmacies on a trial period in Bern are being objected to by conservative local councils.
‘Respondents were asked: ‘How would you vote if there was a referendum on legalising cannabis use with effective health protections in Switzerland?’
Apart from the pilot trials, Switzerland is now heading for full legalisation of adult-use cannabis. In October 2021, the Commission for Social Security and Health of the Council of States voted in favour of a motion allowing the full legalisation and commercialisation of adult-use cannabis. The equivalent commission in the National Council (the SGK-N) is currently drafting a bill, which will then be put before the parliament for voting, with a likely positive outcome. The bill will need to refer back to the results of the ongoing pilot trials, though it is unclear when full legalisation will be implemented and whether there will be a curtailing of the pilot trials in the case of this legislation being passed within a couple of years.
Legalisation across Europe
As explored in the Adult-Use Cannabis in Europe report, these developments are the leading edge of a much wider phenomenon of legalisation across Europe. The Netherlands is due to begin its own trial of adult-use cannabis in Q2 of 2023. Germany recently announced its intention to fully legalise sales by the end of this legislative period, though few details on legalisation are known at present. In March 2022, five government parties announced plans to introduce trial legalisation in the city of Copenhagen in Denmark. Decriminalisation without legalising commercial sales is already in place in Malta and is due in Luxembourg soon, too. Prohibition Partners will continue to provide updates on the legislative reform taking place across Europe and provide analysis of what this means for businesses and consumers on the continent.
*While adult-use sales occur in coffeeshops in the Netherlands and social clubs in Spain, these are not fully regulated or legally supported so are not considered examples of legalisation in Europe. Only the Netherlands and Switzerland have legislation in place supporting fully legal commercial sales, both on a pilot trial basis.
You can review the key trends, opportunities and challenges within the European cannabis market with The European Cannabis Report: 7th Edition and Premium Packages (including market sizing forecasts).