Swiss approve legal heroin programme

3rd December 2008, Comments 0 comments

In a national referendum, Swiss voters make their pioneering heroin programme permanent while keeping marijuana illegal.

GENEVA - The world's most comprehensive legalised heroin programme became permanent with overwhelming approval from Swiss voters who simultaneously rejected the decriminalisation of marijuana.

The heroin programme, started in 1994, is offered in 23 centres across Switzerland. It helped eliminate large groups of drug users shooting up openly in Swiss city parks during the 1980s and 1990s and is credited with reducing crime and improving the health and daily lives of addicts.

Sixty-eight percent of the 2.26 million Swiss voters casting ballots Sunday approved making the heroin programme permanent.

By contrast, around 63.2 percent of voters voted against the marijuana proposal, which was based on a separate citizens' initiative to decriminalise the consumption of marijuana and growing the plant for personal use.

The nearly 1,300 selected addicts, who were not helped by other therapies, visit one of the centres twice a day to receive the carefully measured dose of heroin produced by a government-approved laboratory.

Drugs parapherneliaThey keep their paraphernalia in cups labeled with their names and use the equipment and clean needles to inject themselves under the supervision of a nurse, and also receive counseling from psychiatrists and social workers.

The aim is to help the addicts learn how to function in society.

The United States and the UN narcotics board criticised the programme as potentially encouraging drug abuse, but it attracted attention from governments as far away as Australia and Canada, which recently started or considered starting their own programs modeled on the system.

The Netherlands started a smaller program in 2006, and it serves nearly 600 patients. Britain allowed individual doctors to prescribe heroin since the 1920s, but it ran trials similar to the Swiss approach in recent years. Belgium, Germany, Spain and are also running trial programmes.

Olivier Borer, 35, a musician from the northern town of Solothurn, said he welcomed the outcome in part because state action was required to help heroin addicts, but he said legalising marijuana was a bad idea.

"I think it's very important to help these people, but not to facilitate the using of drugs," Borer said. "You can just see in the Netherlands how it's going. People just go there to smoke."

Sabina Geissbuehler-Strupler of the right-wing Swiss People's Party, which led the campaign against the heroin programme, said she was disappointed in the vote.

"That is only damage limitation," she said. "Ninety-five percent of the addicts are not healed from the addiction."

Health insurance pays for the bulk of the programme, which costs CHF 26 million a year. All residents in Switzerland, which has a population of 7.5 million, are required to have health insurance, with the government paying insurance premiums for those who cannot afford it.

Parliament approved the heroin measure in a revision of Switzerland's narcotics law in March, but conservatives challenged the decision and forced a national referendum under Switzerland's system of direct democracy.

marijuana plantJo Lang, a Green Party member of parliament from the central city of Zug, said he was disappointed in the failure of the marijuana measure because it means 600,000 people in Switzerland will be treated as criminals because they use cannabis.

"People have died from alcohol and heroin, but not from cannabis," Lang said.

The government, which opposed the marijuana proposal, said it feared that liberalising cannabis could cause problems with neighbouring countries.

On a separate issue, 52 percent of voters approved an initiative to eliminate the statute of limitations on pornographic crimes against children before the age of puberty.

The current Swiss statute of limitations on prosecuting pedophile pornography is 15 years. The initiative will result in a change in the constitution to remove that time limit.

[AP / Alexander G. Higgins / Expatica]

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