Switzerland and Heroin Addicts

Swiss voters’ recent decision to give permanent approval to a legalized heroin program for addicts has stirred interest in other countries, like Australia and Canada, that are struggling with how to deal with hard-core addicts. The Swiss program began in 1994 and now operates in almost two dozen centers, serving 1300 addicts who have not responded to traditional therapies. Supporters claim it has helped to eliminate the open use of injected drugs in parks that was common in the 1980s and 90s. The Netherlands began a similar program a few years ago for 600 addicts. Addicts in the Swiss program visit a center twice a day to receive carefully measured doses under a nurse’s supervision. Psychiatrists and social workers are available for consultation. Health insurance, mandatory for all Swiss citizens, covers the cost. The Swiss parliament had already approved the program last March, but a challenge by conservatives led to the national referendum in early December in which 68 percent of voters approved the program and thereby made it permanent.

The United States has criticized the Swiss program, contending that it could increase levels of drug abuse. But our own approach to addiction issues has been sadly shortsighted. The “war on drugs” has meant a huge growth in prisoners convicted of drug offenses. Over half the prisoners in federal prisoners are behind bars for drug offenses, many of then non-violent. But for addicts not yet caught up in the justice system, there are few opportunities for free residential treatment program. Substance treatment should be made available without an addict’s having to enter the prison system. Now, even in-prison programs have been scaled back by budget cuts. The United States should set a good example by investing  more in treatment, before criticizing another country’s good-faith efforts to address its citizens’ addiction problems.    

George Anderson

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