• Switzerland's news in English
 

The battle at Needle Park: a success story

Lyssandra Sears · 31 May 2012, 17:32

Published: 31 May 2012 17:32 GMT+02:00

Switzerland’s parks were at one time notoriously packed with heroin addicts. Lyssandra Sears meets with one of the world’s leading drug experts to find out how the Swiss broke with convention and cracked the problem.

"The Swiss population has generally always had a high addiction liability in comparison to other European countries, in alcoholism, cigarette smoking, and in illegal drugs as well," says 83-year-old Professor Ambros Uchtenhagen, president of the Addiction Research Institute at Zurich University and consultant to, among others, the World Health Organization.

The heroin problem reached its pinnacle in Switzerland in the 1980s, when cities such as Zurich and Bern became famous for their open drug scenes. These hubs attracted large numbers of drug users from all over the country and beyond.

The scene brought with it drug dealers and crime, as addicts burgled and stole to feed their habits. In an effort to keep the heroin users where they could see them, the police eventually decided to let them take over the city parks. This way, at least the police could keep an eye on them and provide emergency assistance for the frequent cases of overdose.

Professor Uchtenhagen, who had set up the in- and out-patient and rehab clinics as part of the University of Zurich's social psychiatry arm, also set up and participated in the mobile emergency teams that would regularly revive overdose patients.

When the scene was at its most extreme, thousands of injectors occupied Switzerland’s green public spaces, he tells The Local. Shared needles caused HIV to spread quickly among users, and it was feared that the disease would spread by sexual means to the non-injecting population.

The parks were unsightly blemishes on an otherwise impeccable landscape and acted as constant reminders to the public of the existence of the problem. Something had to be done.

At first, the authorities tried to control the heroin addicts by punishing them with severe sentences and a zero tolerance attitude. But the strength of their heroin addiction meant that, for most, the threat of legal action was hardly a deterrent.

“We soon realised law enforcement doesn’t change a thing,” Professor Uchtenhagen remembers.

When legal means alone failed to tackle the problem, a new concept was introduced with the aim of reducing the negative consequences of heroin addiction, both for the individual and for society as a whole. Harm reduction, as it became known, soon formed the fourth pillar of Swiss drug policy, alongside the concepts of treatment, prevention and law enforcement.

The introduction of needle exchange programmes, for example, helped prevent the spread of diseases.

“At a relatively early stage our public attitude changed from viewing heroin addicts as criminals, to an image of patients in need of appropriate treatment.”

This pragmatic attitude enabled professionals from a range of disciplines including law enforcement, health, social services and politics to combine efforts to find a range of solutions to the host of issues surrounding heroin abuse.

Professor Uchtenhagen was a member of the Federal Drug Commission at the time, and was responsible for the development and implementation of the research into the use of heroin as a form of treatment.

As a result of these concerted efforts, the Swiss were the first to set up the controversial heroin-assisted programmes in the 1990s. These programmes were targeted at the small proportion of users who did not respond to methadone treatment, enabling professionals to tackle some of the more difficult, hardcore cases.

It is perhaps surprising that such a small, culturally traditional country such as Switzerland should spearhead such an unconventional action plan.

“Switzerland is a very conservative country. But we are also pragmatic,” says Uchtenhagen.

“It is in the Swiss character to want to find out ourselves what’s good for our people, and not to follow the example of others blindly.”

Those working on the projects knew it was crucial to keep the public informed in order to gain their trust.

“Public availability of trustworthy information, on process and outcome data, was paramount,” Uchtenhagen wrote recently in a case study on drug policy.

With his first-hand experience, Professor Uchtenhagen was elected as Chair of the Cantonal Drug Commission, which liaised between the authorities and those on the frontline, and published reports including situational analyses and recommendations for action.

At the time, opinions diverged greatly and not everyone embraced the radical proposals, particularly outside the German-speaking part of Switzerland, which was more affected than other areas.

But the programmes yielded impressive results, and won over many critics, both at home and abroad.

“Other countries started much later with elements such as harm reduction, experimentation, and research on heroin-assisted treatment, so this all contributes to our more visible success,” Professor Uchtenhagen says.

Results from the programmes informed changes in drug policy in the late 80s and 90s, which in turn dramatically reduced the heroin problem.

Police cleared the so-called “Needle Park” in Zurich in February 1992, and addicts were dispersed all over, which was a catastrophe. The scene reformed in an unused railway station nearby and got even worse.

Health professionals responded with a surge in activity: treatment capacity was increased, shelters and day programmes were provided, and low threshold contact and counselling centres were set up throughout the canton. The result was an infrastructure of medical and social care, which helped prevent the same catastrophic consequences when the scene at the railway station was finally closed down in 1994.

In the same year, new clinics for heroin-assisted treatment for the most chronic and marginalised addicts were set up.

Since 1991, deaths as a result of overdose have reduced by approximately 50 percent, and the instance of HIV infections has reduced by 65 percent.

In 1998, the Swiss people voted in favour of the four-pillar policy with a two-thirds majority, and in 1999 a majority voted in favour of continuing heroin-assisted treatment.

Although these results herald good news overall, the fact that the problems are no longer as visible as they once were has had an unintended negative effect - funding to keep the programmes going is no longer as forthcoming as it once was.

“There are other priorities now on the political agenda so it’s not so easy to keep going with the things that we have been setting up and to launch new ones to meet the drug problems of today,” Professor Uchtenhagen laments.

Having dedicated most of his life to working with addictions to substances like heroin, the professor refuses to give up.

He now has his eye on new experiments aimed at Switzerland’s most profuse and popular drug: cannabis. Whether the new experiments turn out to be as successful as the heroin projects remains to be seen.

Lyssandra Sears (news@thelocal.ch)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Refugee crisis
Expats in Switzerland mobilize for refugees
A refugee sits by his tent in Calais. Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP

Expats in Switzerland mobilize for refugees

5 hours ago

Moved by the tragic images in recent days of the plight of Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe, some expats in Switzerland are taking matters into their own hands to try and help, finds The Local.

New fears for livestock after Swiss bear sighting
Photo: Daniel Mosch/File

New fears for livestock after Swiss bear sighting

5 hours ago

A hunter in the Swiss canton of Graubünden has reported seeing a bear in the Val du Roggiasca, part of the Val Mesolcina near the Italian border, the first bear sighting in that particular area since 1904.

IOC starts $2 million fund to help refugees
IOC President Thomas Bach. Photo: Greg Baker/AFP

IOC starts $2 million fund to help refugees

5 hours ago

The Lausanne-based International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced a two million dollar fund on Friday that will be made available to National Olympic Committees for programmes focused on refugees.

Husband arrested after Pully wife shot at home
The incident happened in Pully, a suburb of Lausanne. Photo: Ville de Pully

Husband arrested after Pully wife shot at home

7 hours ago

Police arrested a 28-year-old man in the early hours of Thursday morning after his wife was shot in the apartment they shared with their children in Pully, in the canton of Vaud.

US Open tennis
Swiss pair rolls into US Open third round
Federer only needed 80 minutes to win over Steve Darcis. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images North America/AFP

Swiss pair rolls into US Open third round

9 hours ago

Swiss tennis stars Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka both rolled into the US Open third round on Thursday, with 17-time Grand Slam winner Federer still finding ways to improve his game at age 34.

Swiss bishops: we are open to gay people
Vitus Huonder caused outrage with his remarks in July. Photo: Swiss Conference of Bishops

Swiss bishops: we are open to gay people

1 day ago

The Catholic church is open to all, regardless of sexuality, the Swiss Conference of Bishops has said in its first official statement since the controversial comments of Bishop Vitus Huonder at the end of July.

Swiss freeze assets of Malaysian state fund
Protestors reflected in a portrait of Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak. Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP

Swiss freeze assets of Malaysian state fund

1 day ago

Swiss authorities said on Thursday they had frozen tens of millions of dollars in assets as part of an investigation into Malaysia's troubled state investment fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

Merkel to talk up free movement in Swiss visit
Photo: John Macdougall/AFP

Merkel to talk up free movement in Swiss visit

1 day ago

German chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to reiterate Europe’s commitment to the free movement of people during an official visit to Switzerland on Thursday, only her second in ten years.

Swiss target airlines in asylum crackdown
Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

Swiss target airlines in asylum crackdown

1 day ago

Airlines which transport passengers illegally into Switzerland will be subject to steep fines from October 1st in a new rule that aims to cut down on the number of asylum seekers.

Fifa reform body holds first meeting in Bern
Photo: AFP

Fifa reform body holds first meeting in Bern

2 days ago

A 12-member committee set up by Fifa to draw up far-reaching reforms to the Zurich-based world governing body for football in the wake of a corruption scandal met for the first time in Bern on Wednesday.

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS

Features
Getting the lowdown on Swiss import duties for stuff bought abroad
National
One million people throng Zurich techno street party
National
Where are Switzerland's priciest babysitters?
Features
Farmers’ wives offer visitors genuine slice of life in rural Switzerland
National
Switzerland set to test world's longest train tunnel under the Alps
National
US right-wing think tank: Swiss are freest people in Europe
National
Bottoms up: new signs alert visitors to Zurich's nudist bathing zones
Sport
Swiss man smashes cliff jumping record with 59-metre dive
National
Climate change seen as plus for Switzerland's wine growers
Photo: Federal Housing Office
National
Buying home in Switzerland is 'cheaper than renting'
National
Central bank to launch new high-tech banknotes — six years late
National
Swiss speed climber summits all 4,000m peaks in the Alps
National
Report: Switzerland is world's safest country (barring extreme sports)
National
Where are the top ten spots to visit in Switzerland for tourists?
National
Two Japanese climbers found dead after scaling Matterhorn's summit
National
High Geneva accommodation costs force unpaid UN intern to live in tent
National
Zurich farmer ordered to remove cow bells after noise complaints
National
Gays file criminal complaint against Swiss bishop over speech
National
The Expat Guide: Moving to Switzerland
National
Briton who ends life in Switzerland: 'Ideal shelf life for people is 70'
National
Aargau farmer under fire after pigs gassed to death by own excrement
National
Cows trample German woman to death in Graubünden Alps
National
Hot times: Swiss city to host first naked performance festival
Features
Expat American author's time in Zurich inspires racy bestseller
National
10 amazing places to be on Swiss National Day — or any other day
National
Swiss army pilfers water from French lake for cows in Switzerland
National
Swiss Army airlifts water to thirsty cows facing drought conditions
International
Canary Islands: diver killed in collision with Swiss windsurfer
National
VIDEO: Seagull steals camera for amazing bird's eye selfie
Switzerland celebrates first ascent of Matterhorn
Politics
Immigrant recruits may not be loyal: Swiss defence minister
Solar Impulse 2 round-the-world flight halted for repairs
Society
Teenager gets high on vegetarian meal at Zurich club
National
Greece seeks tax revenues from assets 'hidden' in Swiss banks
Culture
Paris police arrest Swiss artist for naked Eiffel Tower selfies
National
Scientists uncover largest Swiss dinosaur skeleton ever found
National
National weather office extends danger alerts as heatwave takes hold
National
Most severe heatwave in Switzerland since 2003 on the way
Travel
Bogglingly expensive Geneva club sandwiches remain 'priciest in world'
Politics
Anti-immigration nationalist party remains most popular: poll
National
Greek finance minister slams Swiss over lack of tax evasion info
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

4,446
jobs available