• Switzerland's news in English
 
The battle at Needle Park: a success story
Sergej Nawalnew, Ambros Uchtenhagen

The battle at Needle Park: a success story

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
Swiss spills beans about guarding the pope
Photo: David Geisser

Swiss spills beans about guarding the pope

Although better known today for their colourful uniforms than their centuries-old reputation as fearless warriors, the Swiss Guards remain a powerful symbol of the Vatican. The Local speaks to David Geisser, one of the latest recruits, about a career protecting popes.
 READ  

Massive write-downs soak Axpo in red ink
Photo: Axpo

Massive write-downs soak Axpo in red ink

Swiss utility company Axpo said on Friday that eroding wholesale prices for electricity have forced it to write down 1.5 billion francs on the value of its power plants and energy supply contracts. READ  

Banks vow negative rates won't be passed on
Photo: Yoshiko Kusano/Photopress

Banks vow negative rates won't be passed on

Major banks in Switzerland say they have no intention of charging small savers negative interest rates in the wake of the Swiss National Bank’s decision this week to charge such rates to financial institutions. READ  

Suspected stabber Nabilla freed from prison
Photo: AFP

Suspected stabber Nabilla freed from prison

Swiss model and French reality TV star Nabilla Benattia left a women’s prison in Versailles, France on Thursday on conditional release while facing charges of attempted murder after stabbing her boyfriend. READ  

Swiss school grad 'hero' among café siege victims
Photo: César Ritz Colleges/Facebook

Swiss school grad 'hero' among café siege victims

César Ritz Colleges, a Swiss hotel management school group, issued a tribute on its Facebook page to a former graduate who died while trying to end this week’s café hostage-taking incident in Sydney, Australia that left three people dead and five people injured. READ  

Forecast cuts 2015 Swiss economic growth
What, me worry? Swiss economy seen as continuing to defy trend in eurozone. Photo: Credit Suisse

Forecast cuts 2015 Swiss economic growth

The Swiss federal government's experts' group says Switzerland's economic prospects remain favourable in a "risky environment" although it cut its growth forecast for 2015. READ  

French businessman plans takeover of Orange

French businessman plans takeover of Orange

Apax Funds has announced it is selling Orange Switzerland, the country’s third largest mobile operator, to NJJ Capital, a holding company owned by French businessman Xavier Niel for 2.8 billion francs. READ  

Switzerland cracks top ten list for business
Zurich, Switzerland's biggest centre for business. Photo: Switzerland Tourism

Switzerland cracks top ten list for business

Switzerland ranks among the top ten best countries in the world to do business, according to Forbes magazine’s list for 2014. READ  

Central bank imposes negative interest rates
Photo: Michael Faes

Central bank imposes negative interest rates

With fresh turmoil in foreign exchange markets putting upward pressure on the franc, the Swiss National Bank announced on Thursday the introduction of negative interest rates. READ  

Swiss cheer Cuba and US on resuming relations
US President Obama announcing decision at the White House. Photo: Pool/AFP

Swiss cheer Cuba and US on resuming relations

Switzerland has extended congratulations to the United States for its decision to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time since 1961 by opening a an embassy in Havana. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Features
The Local's top ten snow sport alternatives to skiing in Switzerland
International
Swiss chocolate café at centre of hostage-taking drama Down Under
National
Why has The Local got a new logo?
Features
Exploring the 'most beautiful village' in French-speaking Switzerland
Business & Money
Italian thieves steal 260 tons of Swiss Lindt & Sprüngli chocolate
National
World's longest train tunnel — under the Swiss Alps — set to open in 2016
National
Switzerland's Christmas market season gets into full swing
National
Porn film on video screen spices up fare at Swiss McDonald's restaurant
National
Masturbation scene in Swiss TV ad for Media Markt draws complaints
National
Cantonal lawmakers end 'happy hours' tippling in Vaud pubs and bars
Politics
Former concert pianist Sommaruga elected as next Swiss president
Culture
Jailed German art forger's paintings go on sale at Bern gallery
Business & Money
Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad's family listed as Switzerland's richest
Features
Long-time expats face dilemma: to be or not to be a Swiss citizen
National
Switzerland's voters massively reject strict immigration limits
Business & Money
Pieces of Napoleon's auctioned hair to be put in Geneva luxury watches
National
Activists petition federal government for ban on eating cats and dogs
National
Swiss meat firm faces scandal over alleged false labelling of products
Sport
Federer victory gives Switzerland its first Davis Cup tennis title
Business & Money
Italy's PM upset over Swiss mogul's acquittal in asbestos deaths
Business & Money
University of Zurich study finds 'banker's oath' could spur honesty
Sponsored Article
Exclusive offer: Try out home exchange
National
Swiss National Bank chief calls proposal to boost gold reserves 'fatal'
National
Mudslides kill four people in Ticino and neighbouring Italy
Culture
British X Factor star seeks internet support for Swiss Eurovision place
National
Court overturns ban by backing right for schoolgirl to wear scarf
National
Swiss ranking for English skills worsens among non-Anglo countries
Culture
Swiss model and French TV star Nabilla held for 'attempted murder'
Travel
Switzerland's Zermatt voted best ski resort in the Alps by skiers
Sport
VIDEO: FC Zurich claims crime after 'vicious' tackle hospitalizes player
Tech
Federal government announces new '.swiss' internet domain name
National
Zany emergency: Basel firefighters rescue ass stuck in manhole
Business & Money
American jury clears former UBS top executive of tax fraud
International
Switzerland ranks second to Norway in global 'prosperity' index
National
Financial regulator bans former Coop Bank CEO for three years
International
Switzerland slips in World Economic Forum's gender equality rankings
National
Job candidates unhappy with hiring process in Switzerland
National
Glacier 3000 opens new foot bridge spanning two mountains in Vaud
National
Swiss seek special Unesco heritage listing for yodelling and watchmaking
International
Switzerland regarded as best place in world for expats: global survey
National
Red faces at Migros over Hitler and Mussolini coffee cream pots
National
Quarter of workers in Switzerland 'stressed out': new survey
Travel
Lonely Planet ranks Zermatt among top places to visit in 2015
Features
Eritrean asylum seekers find refuge in Swiss monastery town
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

2,062
jobs available
The Local Spain is hiring!
The Local is seeking a new editor for our site in Spain to join our growing team of internationally-minded, driven, ambitious and clued-up journalists.
Details and how to apply