The number of deaths from drug overdoses in Switzerland has fallen below 200 for the first time since 1987. Some experts believe Switzerland's controversial drugs policy is responsible; others say it is simply because heroin use is falling.
The number of deaths from drug overdoses in Switzerland has fallen below 200 for the first time since 1987. Some experts believe Switzerland's controversial drugs policy is responsible for the drop; others say it is simply because heroin use is falling.
A survey of 25 Swiss cantons revealed that drug deaths in 1999 fell to a new 12-year low of 179. That is 31 fewer than the previous year, and less than half the number recorded in 1992, when drugs killed a record 419 people.
The statistics suggest Switzerland is doing something right, but what? Experts are divided. Some see it as a vindication of Switzerland's controversial drugs policy, which provides free heroin and methadone under medical supervision to certain categories of addicts, and helps them re-integrate into society.
Dr David Winicki helps heroin users to kick their addiction. He is in no doubt that Switzerland's drug policy is working: "More people are involved in substitution therapies of methadone and heroin, so fewer people are being abandoned to the streets."
Winicki believes heroin itself does not kill. "Addicts may be killed by their last shot," he says. "But, in fact, they are dying because of related problems, such as poverty, insufficient health care, homelessness and lack of food."
The majority of Swiss people are sympathetic to Winicki's arguments. Two years ago, they approved the heroin substitution programme in a nationwide vote. However, in that same referendum, 75 per cent rejected a proposal to legalise drugs for personal consumption.
Winicki and the pro-legalisation group, Droleg are continuing to push for drugs to be legalised. He says that unless all restrictions are lifted, people will continue to die from drugs.
"Addicts need about Sfr150 ($100) a day to feed their habit. If heroin were sold legally, it would cost about Sfr7 a day. That would leave addicts with enough money to look after themselves properly."
From staff and wire reports
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