Case Study: Switzerland’s Heroin Epidemic

In the early 90s Switzerland had a major problem with heroin. Drug-related deaths had increased 12-fold from 1975 to 1992.

Addicts were shooting up in public, needles were found in parks, incidences of HIV were increasing and there was move drug-related violence than ever before. Nothing was working to curb the problem.

The solution became to legalise the use of heroin. Addicts were given heroin for free in special centres where they were given clean needles and could take the drug under medical supervision. 

Addicts were encouraged to take free therapy sessions and given assistance to find jobs, start businesses and talk through traumatic incidences in their lives (which is often the reason they became addicted in the first place

The harm reduction policy of Switzerland and its emphasis on the medicalisation of the heroin problem seems to have contributed to the image of heroin as unattractive for young people. 

– The Lancet Journal, 2006 (read article)

Not only is this a far more humane approach – it is also far cheaper for the state. Not having to incarcerate users makes sense economically. The savings associated with this new approach are put back into helping addicts to recover from their addiction when they are ready and in the meantime; to heal some of the pain that might have caused them to become addicted in the first place (and avoid overdoses and needle-sharing illnesses).

This approach also resulted in a huge decrease in the number of HIV-infected people, the number of needles found in public, drug-related violences and the number of overdoses.

Our results suggest that a paramount, population-level impact (on the number of HIV-infected people) occurred because of the harm reduction package…

– Infectious Diseases Society of America Article (read article)

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