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Swiss Legalization Experiment Praised, Attacked


October 1995

In an article for National Review, Dr. Ethan Nadelmann, director of The Lindesmith Center, argues that the Swiss heroin prescription experiment is working (Ethan Nadelmann, "Switzerland's Heroin Experiment," National Review, July 10, 1995, p. 46).

The experiment began in 1992 with 700 heroin addicts in nine cities who were administered heroin by a health center under supervision. The purpose of the experiment is to see if taking intravenous drug use out of public areas will reduce drug-related problems and reduce the spread of AIDS.

Nadelmann writes that the programs only accept people who have been trying to quit but who have been unable. Each addict pays a fee of about $13 per day to use the drug in the center. Except for one center in Zurich, where addicts can take home heroin-laced cigarettes, participants cannot take drugs home.

The experiment was approved by the International Narcotics Control Board and has achieved widespread support in Switzerland. Leaders of the three top political parties and the ministers of defense, justice, and finance have all expressed their approval. The Netherlands, Germany, and Australia are about to start similar prescription programs.

Nadelmann suggests that the U.S. could benefit from a state-supervised drug prescription program:

While these countries experiment with more sensible and humane approaches to drug policy, the United States clings to a war not only against drug dealers, but also against drug users. ... The point of these innovations isn't to coddle drug users. It's to reduce the human and economic costs of drug use  -- costs paid not only by users but also by non-users through increased health-care, justice, and law-enforcement expenditures.

However, in a recent op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Rachel Ehrenfeld called the Swiss experiment to legalize heroin for hard-core users a failure ("Selling Syringes: The Swiss Experiment," Wall Street Journal, September 6, 1995, p. A18).

Ehrenfeld interviewed officials in charge of the program and visited one of the heroin distribution centers. She wrote that many of the addicts use other drugs such as cocaine, obtained illegally on the street, while receiving heroin from the center.

Urinalysis is conducted on one pre-announced day per month. Even if the test is positive, the participant will not be excluded from the program. Ehrenfeld wrote that there is much opportunity for diversion of the distributed heroin -- addicts can inject the heroin into a jar and then sell it on the street. Contrary to Nadelmann's statement that addicts can take home heroin cigarettes from only one center, Ehrenfeld wrote that such a policy is contained in the "design of the program."

The treatment and educational programs that are supposed to be offered at the center are missing, she wrote, and the addicts are not required to work. Further, Ehrenfeld wrote that pamphlets at the center promoted "alternative lifestyles" of homosexuality and drug use. She concluded that those in the "drug liberalization" movement in Switzerland are hoping that the legalization of drugs for addicts will be extended to include cocaine, even though the experiment with heroin was a failure.