In the name of harm reduction the Swiss voters authorized the state distribution of heroin to addicts in the last summer. Some people in the US want the state to imitate the Swiss. Picture a well-lit room with metal tables. On each are a candle and a kidney-shaped dish. Inside the dish are a syringe, some cotton, a spoon, Band-Aids and a rubber tourniquet. Mirrors line the walls to be used by junkies who must shoot up into their necks because their arm veins are gone. A medical practitioner stands ready, if needed, to provide instruction in the proper injection of heroin or to intervene in the case of an overdose. Addicts return several times a day to such "safe-injection rooms" to receive their high-quality fix at little or no cost, sometimes with a cup of coffee. And all thanks to the Swiss government.
The Swiss government has authorized the controlled distribution of prescription heroin since 1994 and it was approved by Swiss voters in a June 1999 referendum after a furious campaign based on Swiss government reports. Never mind that those studies were deeply flawed, say independent analysts, including the World Health Organization, or WHO. Now, despite the emphatic claims of independent agencies that Swiss drug policy has been a failure, some are advocating that the United States follow the Swiss example. There is a libertarian-populist streak in the American political temperament to which this sort of thing appeals. Rep. Tom Campbell, the Republican senatorial candidate seeking to unseat Sen. Dianne Feinstein in California, tells Insight that although he is not endorsing any such proposal, "if a city wants to try what was tried in Zurich, it should have the freedom" to do so.
But even some recovering addicts are dubious about this approach. Former heroin addict Jerome Hunt of Atlanta tells Insight that safe-injection rooms involve "exploitation of freedom" and "an incentive to remain addicted." He adds that heroin is "a tool of self-destruction, whether it's free or whether you have to steal to get it. It's fueling an allergy that's going to make you break out, no matter how you get it. It's going to lead me to the same consequences that it has led me to over and over and over again. That's just the nature of addiction"
Nevertheless, the advocates of legal venues for heroin use have no doubts. Ethan Nadelmann is the executive director of the Lindesmith Center, a New York-based think tank funded by billionaire George Soros and dedicated to liberalizing drug policy. In an interview with Insight, Nadelmann calls the Swiss heroin-prescription experiments "extremely successful" and proposes that, "at the very least, [we should] try them here to see if they'd work." Nadelmann invokes the Swiss example as a "harm-reduction" guide for treating hard-to-reach addicts. The idea is that abuse of narcotics is here to stay and that policies must be developed to deal with the reality by seeking to minimize harm to drug users and to society itself.
The Swiss experiment was a response to the widespread marketing and use of drugs in public spaces such as railroad stations and Zurich's "Needle Park." The feasibility of prescribing and supervising self-administered heroin injections to more than 1,000 persons in safe-injection rooms was evaluated in 18 projects from 1994 to 1996, often known as the Swiss drug trials. Even though these projects were formally certified on condition, the major force was political pressure to develop an arrangement for easy and unlimited access to heroin" and other drugs according to physician analyst Ernst Aeschbach of Swiss Doctors against Drugs.