Swiss help for heroin addicts
By BBC News – Saturday, 9 February, 2002
Copyright: BBC News
Switzerland, which once had the highest rates of heroin addiction and HIV in Europe, practises a radical policy of harm reduction for its drug addicts. Imogen Foulkes reports from Zurich.
The Platzspitz park in Zurich is an oasis of calm greenery in the heart of the city.
But 10 years ago, it was better known as needle park. Hundreds of addicts came here to buy heroin, and inject it openly.
It was a horrifying spectacle, and, 10 years ago this week, Swiss police drove the addicts out of needle park.
But that does not mean the addicts have gone away. Some are patients on Switzerland’s heroin prescription programme. It is controversial, but it has got some hard facts on its side.
“Our patients have achieved more stable lifestyles, their health has improved, and some even have jobs,” says Dr Daniel Meili, who is in charge of Zurich’s programme. “And many of these people have hepatitis, or are HIV positive. If they didn’t get heroin here, they’d be out on the street.”
Dr Meili is so concerned about the health dangers of being an addict on the street, that he would like to widen the heroin programme, and even prescribe other narcotics, such as cocaine.
To see what it means to be a drug addict on the street, you only have to walk a few blocks from the heroin prescription centre to one of Zurich’s injection rooms.
Here, addicts who buy their drugs illegally can come to get a clean needle, and inject under the supervision of trained staff.
Robert Reithauer, the social worker in charge, opens his doors once an hour to let the addicts in.
He greets them all by name. They are mainly young people, but they look old.
Painfully thin, many walk with sticks _ the legacy of the dreadful abscesses which injecting with dirty needles can cause.
Robert has a table laid out with steel dishes. Each contains a clean syringe and a ticket with a number.
This is so the addicts can take turns in the injection room in an orderly manner _ many are desperately impatient for their fix.
I spot one young woman who stands out from the rest. She is not so thin, her red hair is shiny, and I think she may be somehow less of an addict, more saveable perhaps, than the others.
She waits in line, jigging from foot to foot. Meanwhile Robert shows me Zurich’s latest offer to the addicts: a smoking room where heroin, cocaine, or even crack can be consumed.
“There are many people who mix heroin and cocaine,” Robert explains, “and they just can’t give it up. So we thought a way of reaching them and offering help would be to open a smokers room.”
The room itself borders on the surreal. It has a powerful air conditioning system, Robert points out, so that he and his staff will not be overcome by the fumes.
There is an industrial size roll of aluminium foil on the wall – an essential element for cooking up a fix.
A young man is about to go in. He is from London originally, and he describes Switzerland as “a paradise for drug users”.
“But seriously,” he says, “if I didn’t come here I’d be on the streets, or hiding in the public toilets, and the police would get me.”
Robert Reithauer, however, does not think his job is providing shelter from the police.
“OK they get a clean safe place to take their drugs, but what we want is contact with them. Without contact we can’t help.
“Here, they can talk to me, or see our doctor,” he says. “And you know quite often I see people today, just out shopping, who used to come here, and they are off drugs now. They have happy, normal lives. We helped them achieve that.
“If I didn’t think I could do that, I wouldn’t work here.”
It is 12 o’clock, and Robert opens his doors again. The girl with the shiny red hair is first in the queue.