• Switzerland's news in English
 
moving_to_switz_header

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
Lausanne gets 2020 Winter Youth Olympics
Lausanne in winter. Photo: OTV/L Ryser

Lausanne gets 2020 Winter Youth Olympics

The Swiss city of Lausanne will host the third Winter Youth Olympic Games in 2020, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced on Friday. READ  

Swiss Siberia ends July with below-zero night
The village of La Brevine is known as the Siberia of Switzerland. Photo: Caroline Bishop

Swiss Siberia ends July with below-zero night

The hot weather across Switzerland in July may have broken records, but in the early hours of July 31st one village lived up to its frosty reputation when the temperature fell below zero. READ  

New SwissPass could lead to job cuts: union
SwissPass launches on August 1st. Photo: SBB

New SwissPass could lead to job cuts: union

The new SwissPass railcard, which launches on August 1st, could put ticket office jobs in jeopardy says transport staff union SEV. READ  

Naked performers take to Swiss city’s streets
The festival will stage performances in public places around the city. Photo: W Winkler

Naked performers take to Swiss city’s streets

Visitors to Biel/Bienne may be in for a surprise on August 21st-22nd as the Swiss city hosts the world’s first naked performance festival in the city’s streets. READ  

Swissport to be sold in multi-billion franc deal
Photo: AFP/Nicolas Maeterlinck

Swissport to be sold in multi-billion franc deal

Private equity company PAI Partners announced Thursday it is selling Zurich-based airport ground handling and cargo company Swissport International to China's HNA Group for 2.7 billion Swiss francs ($2.8 billion, 2.54 billion euros). READ  

Missing Swiss cats spark record helpline calls
Missing cats concerned 85 percent of calls. Photo: Dennis Jarvis

Missing Swiss cats spark record helpline calls

Switzerland’s recent heatwave resulted in a record number of cats going walkabout in the months of June and July, according to Swiss animal call centre STMZ. READ  

Swiss researcher creates yarn from abattoir waste
The yarn was spun from a gelatine-based thread. Photo: ETH Zurich

Swiss researcher creates yarn from abattoir waste

A PHD student at the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich has devised a fibre with similar properties to merino wool from gelatine gathered from slaughterhouse waste. READ  

10 amazing places to be on Swiss National Day
Head to Zermatt for a sunset dinner overlooking the Matterhorn. Photo: Marc Weiler

10 amazing places to be on Swiss National Day

From mountain-top barbecues to sunrise breakfasts and cliff walks, follow The Local’s suggestions for making the most of Swiss national day on Saturday. READ  

Swiss watches stolen in second museum break-in
The town of Le Locle is a watchmaking centre. Photo: Neuchatel Tourism

Swiss watches stolen in second museum break-in

Burglars have stolen a number of valuable items from the watch museum in Le Locle, in the canton of Neuchâtel, just two months after a similar incident in nearby La Chaux-de-Fonds. READ  

Drunk Swiss man tied up on flight to Bangkok
The Thai Airways flight continued to Bangkok. Photo: Faisal Akram

Drunk Swiss man tied up on flight to Bangkok

Passengers on a flight from Zurich to Bangkok were forced to tie up a drunk Swiss man who caused a fracas during the journey. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
National
10 amazing places to be on Swiss National Day
National
Swiss army pilfers French water to give to thirsty cows
Sponsored Article
Outsourcing drives Apreel's Europe growth
National
The Expat Guide: Moving to Switzerland
National
Swiss army airlifts water to thirsty cows
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: Army chief
Solar Impulse 2 round-the-world flight halted for repairs
Society
Teenager gets high on vegetarian meal at Zurich club
Sponsored Article
Crans-Montana: International expat hub
Sponsored Article
Geneva's revolutionary marketing education
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
Business & Money
Insects proposed for sale in Swiss supermarkets next year
National
'Oh God — I'm coming': noisy lovers' complaint goes public
National
Canton of Ticino threatens closing Italy border to asylum seekers
National
Just in case: Swiss National Bank prepares for Grexit 'crisis'
National
Russian crisis fuelled by sanctions threaten 40,000 Swiss jobs: study
National
Art Basel: Art for art's sake — or to make an investment?
National
New survey ranks Zurich Europe's priciest city for expatriates
National
Quarter of residents in Switzerland 'have multiple homes'
Features
Veggie lovers and 'flexitarians' challenge Swiss meat-eating habits
National
Forest officials struggle to save Switzerland's dying ash trees
Education
Historian finds ancient Egyptian papyrus texts in Basel uni library
National
Seven large Swiss employers back 'flexible work' charter
National
Basel police rescue of ducks forces closure of A2 motorway
National
Mother and daughter die as rain storms lash central Switzerland
Sport
'Stan the man' Wawrinka: French Open triumph 'completely crazy'
Culture
Expat's Zurich 'then and now' video shows how little the city has changed
National
Phoney Geneva police officers rob tourists and UN staff
Sport
Blatter's abrupt resignation seen as a 'stunning capitulation'
Features
Cleanup crews head to ski resorts to keep Swiss mountains tidy
Culture
Interlaken museum showcases works by Picasso using Caran d'Ache pencils
National
Low interest rates give tenants right to seek rent reductions in Switzerland
Sport
Switzerland's Blatter fends off critics to win fifth term as Fifa president
National
Agricultural researchers discover why Swiss cheese has holes
Culture
Swiss filmmaker returns home to shoot 'gender-fluid' film in Ticino
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

4,233
jobs available