For centuries, Switzerland has led the way when it comes to what we now call “wellness,” peddling the healing powers of crisp Alpine air, clear blue skies, and fine Swiss botanicals.
In the 1800s, Alexander Spengler, a German refugee working as a country doctor in the remote hamlet of Davos, developed a spa where victims of tuberculosis were prescribed walks in the brisk mountain air, marmot-fat chest rubs, and frigid showers. At the turn of last century, Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner fought disease with a raw-food diet, giving rise to Switzerland’s still-popular version of overnight oats, Bircher Muesli. And of course Johanna Spyri’s children’s book of the same era depicted a little girl, Heidi, whose illness was healed by Swiss herbs and mountain air.
Today, those healing herbs might well include cannabis.
Cannabidiol—the non-psychotropic chemical compound of cannabis that’s also known as CBD—is catching on in the now-global wellness community as a treatment for anxiety, joint pain, PTSD, menstrual cramps, insomnia, nausea, seizures, inflammation, and more. In Switzerland’s cities, the stuff has quickly become ubiquitous—standard fare in pharmacies, convenience stores, and a new crop of dispensaries. Unlike THC, the most famous of cannabinoids for its ability to get us high, CBD promises mental and physical benefits without the giggles, paranoia, or couch-lock.
In downtown Zurich, a convenience store advertises Swiss cannabis, hemp foods, and pre-rolled joints. Beside the cash register at a nearby pharmacy, a display bearing a photograph of a white-haired man wearing a placid smile in a field of marijuana contains CBD-enhanced moisturizer, and glass dropper bottles of tinctures that a pharmacist reports are popular with older customers who suffer from joint pain.
In 2011, a new Swiss law made room for the sale of cannabis containing less than 1% THC. (By way of comparison, the popular marijuana strain Blue Dream contains around 20% THC.) And in the last couple years, businesses selling this type of marijuana with only extremely light psychotropic effects have been multiplying. There were just five registered companies in Switzerland manufacturing or trading CBD in January 2017, according to the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger. Eleven months later there were 410, estimated to bring in about CHF 60 million (about $62 million) for the year.
Swiss adaption has been quick, and now tourists are starting to catch on too, says Ramin Stricker, a shopkeeper at Marry Jane, a second-story shop in Zurich’s cobblestoned Old Town. “When we opened the store, nobody from the US knew what CBD was,” he says. “Now after six months, every second person knows.”
With a well-lit, white-walled space and a sign outside advertising “finest Swiss cannabis,” Marry Jane looks like a smaller version of the dispensaries now commonplace in US states like California and Oregon, where marijuana is now legal for recreational use. But in Zurich, none of the cannabis flowers, pre-rolled joints, baked goods, tinctures, salves, or soft drinks will get you particularly high. Instead, strains such as White Widow and Super Silver Haze are marketed by their varying percentages of CBD.
“Mostly people decide by the taste,” says Stricker, noting that Super Silver Haze might have a familiar flavor to people who’d smoked citrusy, THC-rich Haze strains in Amsterdam, adding that the shop has customers between ages 18 and 80. “I think it’s a good step that the people know the plant from another side.”
At least in Zurich, where the friendly pharmacist selling CBD drops alongside shampoo and throat lozenges was particularly refreshing, there seems to be little stigma attached to it. It would be nice to say the same in the US. Maybe someday, our Ricola cough drops will contain fine Swiss cannabis.