How Switzerland Could Teach the U.S. To Deal With Its Heroin Problem

March 26th 2016

Alex Mierjeski

As the U.S. struggles to find a solution to its surging heroin problem, it might do well to look to other countries whose policies have successfully stymied the growth of the destructive drug.

One example is Switzerland, where treatment-based approaches and services such as injection rooms have virtually eliminated many of the country's problems connected with heroin addiction.


In 2008, the country passed a referendum approving a program that had spent years in trial phase: supplying irremediable addicts with free, full-strength heroin. Such addicts can either take it themselves or have a staff member administer it, so long as it's within a designated clinic.

"Once a patient enters our treatment, he would very much to a large degree — and the statistics have proven that — ... reduce his illegal activities," Christoph Buerki, who ran one such clinic, told ABC in 2009.

Critics argued that the program enabled addicts and allowed them to maintain their destructive habits. Proponents, including Buerki, said that the lure of free drugs was only one part of a nuanced treatment plan.

Heroin Addiction

"They come here [for] the heroin, but once you have them in treatment, you start working with them," Buerki said.

The program worked. Even before the referendum passed, the program had "slashed crime, misery, and disease associated with hard-core drug addiction," according to Swiss officials cited by the Associated Press in 1997.

Meanwhile, injection sites minimized public nuisance areas, overdose complications and deaths, and risky behavior, while improving the health and social functioning of users, according to research published in the Drug and Alcohol Review.

Perhaps most important, no overdose deaths were reported at the program's injection clinics, according to a 2010 report.

Other countries — including The Netherlands, Canada, and the United Kingdom — have had success experimenting with similar programs.

Meanwhile, the United States has struggled to deal with a heroin epidemic that reached an apex in 2014, with some 47,055 deaths related to overdoses, according to this New York Times graphic.

Heroin overdose deaths 2014

Now, there are encouraging signs that U.S. lawmakers are recognizing the failures of punitive, War on Drugs approaches to the addiction crisis. The town of Ithaca, N.Y., is considering a plan to introduce a "supervised injection facility," much like those in Switzerland.

"[Addicts] will have just had their fix, so that won't be their first priority, and they might say to the doctor there, 'Actually, my tooth has been hurting, and I have a puncture wound that has gone bad,'" Ithaca Mayor Svante L. Myrick told the Times. "You can begin to treat the other physical things and get them prepared for their moment of clarity."

The community supports the plan, the Times reported. But it must clear the state legislature and requires a number of changes to both state and federal laws to move forward.