The lower house of Switzerland’s Federal Assembly approved a bill paving the way for a pilot research program that would permit the temporary production and distribution of cannabis to adults for recreational purposes.
While an important milestone, the vote in early June is also symbolic of the sluggish pace at which recreational legalization is occurring in Europe.
The Swiss experience should be taken as an important lesson for companies wanting to capitalize on the adult-use sector of the European cannabis market in the next few years.
While approving the project, a majority of National Council legislators rejected proposals that would have limited the experiment’s size and scope – a sign that the lower house is committed to moving forward with the project.
Now the Council of States will debate and vote on the bill. Local experts expect the project to be approved.
But they warn that a positive vote isn’t guaranteed, and, even if the bill is approved, it could undergo modifications or delays in the upper house.
This month’s positive vote by the National Council follows one taken earlier this year by Switzerland’s National Council Health Commission.
The approval of the trial by the lower house plenary confirmed details on how the program would work once it successfully completes the legislative process.
“This is a positive step toward the normalization of cannabis in the country,” Simon Anderfuhren-Biget, a Swiss drug policy expert, told Marijuana Business Daily.
“However, this legislative process is still ongoing and somewhat uncertain,” said Anderfuhren-Biget, who holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Geneva.
“And according to this political agenda, even in the best scenario, I would be surprised to see distribution before 2022,”
Anderfuhren-Biget also noted that “this scientific process is expected to last five years, which could be extended (by) two more, and the evidence collected from it is supposed to provide scientific arguments for a national debate on the opportunity to legally regulate cannabis for adult consumers.”
That means that if everything goes as planned, full legalization for adults could be debated by 2030.
“On the other hand,” Anderfuhren-Biget said, “Switzerland is known for its democracy, and a popular initiative at the constitutional level or a parliamentary proposal to modify the drug law could drastically speed up the process.”
During the debate in the National Council, a legislator mentioned that an estimated 220,000 people regularly consume recreational marijuana in Switzerland.
The lower house signed off on what its health commission had previously approved: Only cannabis grown domestically – and under organic conditions as regulated in Switzerland – would be allowed in the five-year study.
The Swiss National Council rejected several proposals by legislators that would have imposed hurdles and limits on the experiment.
One, for example, would have informed employers and schools about the participation of employees and students in the study.
Other proposals that would have introduced hurdles were also rejected, including one that would have required participants’ driver licenses to be suspended during their participation in the experiment.
Other rejected proposals included:
- Registering participants in a database.
- Allowing municipalities to participate in the experiment only with the consent of their federal state.
- Disqualifying from participation people who receive social welfare or disability pensions.
- Barring people with health problems from consuming cannabis or other drugs.
- Imposing a THC cap of 15%. (The cap in the current bill is 20%.)
Rest of Europe
Companies eyeing near-term gains from Europe’s nascent cannabis sector, including recreational sales plans, could be disappointed.
That’s because companies often enter new medical markets under the expectation that a larger recreational market would soon develop.
Those executives should keep in mind Europe is different than North America, experts agreed.
No country in Europe has indicated any intention of mixing medicinal and recreational cannabis into the same framework or giving medical marijuana providers access to adult-use consumers.
Also, there are few signs that full recreational legalization is in the works anytime soon anywhere on the continent.
The Netherlands, like Switzerland, is advancing a limited recreational cannabis experiment. Both are expected to provide evidence for a future debate on full legalization. But that is years away.
In the meantime, the experiments risk potentially stalling the legalization debate while the trials are in operation.
Luxembourg is expected to become the first country in Europe to fully legalize the production of recreational marijuana, as its current government promised in its coalition agreement at the end of 2018.
However, the promise has yet to materialize in any meaningful official steps.
There are many examples of political parties around Europe – including Germany – supporting recreational legalization, but as of now, no legalization bills are set to be approved.
In Germany, several regional authorities have asked the federal government for permission to conduct experiments with recreational marijuana. But the requests were rejected.
However, this is something that could evolve quickly, and it cannot be ruled out if the current situation swiftly changes.
Alfredo Pascual can be reached at [email protected]