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The Swiss Government Wants to Legalize Medical Cannabis

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Jul 05, 2019   
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Switzerland is looking to make it easier for patients to access medical cannabis treatment, with the Swiss Government last week unveiling a proposal to allow cannabis to be prescribed in treating people suffering from cancer or other serious conditions. 

“The proposal makes it possible for doctors to directly prescribe cannabis as part of their treatment,” said the Swiss cabinet in a statement, according to Reuters

The proposed legal amendment to allow prescriptions (full text available here in French) would replace the current system, in which patients who want medical cannabis need to apply to the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) for an exception to use the otherwise illegal drug. 

While Switzerland relaxed its cannabis prohibition laws slightly in 2013, people without such an FOPH exception who are found possession of up to ten grams of the drug are still made to pay a fine of CHF100 ($110), with possession of greater amounts of the drug initiating legal proceedings. 

According to the official FOPH website, the use of medical cannabis has risen sharply in recent years, and the exemption process is ill-prepared to deal with the growing number of applications. The exemption process complicates access to treatment, states the website, and is delaying the start of therapy for the prospective medical cannabis patients. The FOPH also reports that in 2018 alone the federal agency issued nearly 3,000 cannabis authorizations for patients, and so the current situation no longer reflects the exceptional nature that the Narcotics Act described. 

A formal comment period on the proposed change is currently open, and will run until October 17, 2019.

What else will the new amendment change?

Primarily, the amendment will give doctors the exclusive power to issue prescriptions for medical cannabis, thus ending the need for FOPH cannabis use exemptions. But in order to do this effectively, the amendment also includes a number of other minor law changes

With the new amendment in place, the cultivation, processing, manufacture, and trade of cannabis for medical purposes would be legally regulated within the framework of the country’s drug regulatory agency, Swissmedic. This would be similar to the system already in place for narcotic drugs that are used for medical purposes, such as methadone or morphine. 

Similarly, the ban on marketing cannabis for medical purposes would be lifted. However, nothing will change with respect to the marketing of cannabis for non-medical use; it remains prohibited. 

Notable in its absence is any change to how insurers are expected to handle the reimbursement of costs for medical cannabis treatment. Currently, treatments are reimbursed on a case-by-case basis after taking into account a number of criteria, including factors such as whether other treatment options had previously failed to give relief.

“The biggest obstacle to automatic reimbursement is that the scientific evidence of efficacy is not yet sufficient and the conclusions of existing studies are sometimes contradictory,” the government said. 

In the consultation document the FOPH has said that it will clarify by the end of 2020 whether further measures relating to insurance costs are needed. The FOPH is also launching an evaluation project to answer questions about the effectiveness of cannabis as a therapeutic drug, and to examine what conditions it might be most useful in treating.

Other cannabis-related action in Switzerland

This new medical cannabis amendment is independent of another recently proposed Swiss Narcotics Act amendment, which would allow some 5,000 people to experiment with using recreational cannabis products as part of a government pilot project. 

The purpose of the project would be to gather scientific data on the use of non-medical cannabis in the country, with a focus on studying the socioeconomic impact of legal cannabis on areas such as employment, family, public safety, as well as examining any effect on the country’s illicit drug market. 

The project would consider a range of products, including cannabis flower, resins, oils, and edibles with a tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content of up to 20 percent by weight. Strict packaging regulations would be in place, with advertising of cannabis products remaining prohibited. Restrictions would also limit the amount of cannabis products a participant could acquire to no more than they can consume in a month and prohibit the transmission of cannabis products to a third party. 

If the project is approved by Parliament, it would be valid to run for up to ten years.

Alexander Beadle

Science Writer

Alexander Beadle has been working as a freelance science writer since 2017 and has covered the cannabis industry for Analytical Cannabis since 2018. He has also written for our sister publication, Technology Networks, and the cannabis industry consultant firm Prohibition Partners, among others. Alexander holds a Master's in Materials Chemistry from the University of St. Andrews, where he won a Chemistry Purdie scholarship, and conducted research into zeolite crystal growth mechanisms and the action of single-molecule transistors.


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