Swiss Program Helps Addicts By Using Heroin

ZURICH, Switzerland -- Marco, a soft-spoken 30-year-old, has been hooked on heroin nearly half his life.

Finally, he wants to quit, but the courage he needs to try to start over comes from a familiar source: heroin.

Three times a day, Marco enters a nondescript Zurich office building. He picks up a syringe, needle and swabs and sits in one of five office chairs. He shoots up.

As the drug courses into his bloodstream, a medical doctor stands by. Marco's drug supplier is none other than the Swiss government.

Marco is one of about 1,000 junkies in a state-run program that prescribes heroin to hard-core addicts in hopes of guiding them back into mainstream society -- and encouraging them to kick their deadly habit.

The three-year experiment, while controversial, has rendered impressive results. Nearly 90 of the addicts have entered programs to help them fully withdraw from the drug, although it's too soon to judge the success of their efforts. What is perhaps even more substantial are the side effects for the junkies: lower rates of AIDS and other infectious diseases and a dramatic drop in crime -- saving the taxpayers money.

"The crime situation is much better, and the program's cheap," says Urs Vontobel, director of Crossline, one of 17 drug centers across Switzerland. "And above all it works," he added.

Marco and about 40 other addicts treated by Crossline each pay 15 francs ($10) for a day's supply of heroin.

The center's clean, if not spartan, atmosphere is unlike the filthy Zurich rail yard that was a notorious junkie crash site until authorities dispersed the users in 1995. A doctor supervises the users as they inject themselves. Many of them will chat with other addicts, but the clinic is not a social center.

Alcohol is not allowed inside and no heroin can leave the building. The drug is stored in a safe, behind locked doors. Dealers and other hangers-on are not allowed to gather outside.

The addicts meet with counselors, who help them find housing and odd jobs and guide them toward withdrawal.

A review of the nationwide program says that at the outset, more than two-thirds of the addicts lived off illegal activities, like prostitution and drug peddling. By the end of 1996, this fell to 10 percent.

During the first six months of the program, the number of crimes committed by the addicts fell by about 60 percent.

"I don't have to resort to crime and I can get cheap and clean heroin when I need it," says Marco, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition that his last name not be used. "I now have the time and the will to plan my life ahead."

Marco, a lanky man with wavy dark hair, looks straight into his listener's eyes as he tells his story. He left home at age 16 after his mother died; he lost contact with his father. He fell into the drug scene and began selling heroin.

By mid-1995, he was a hardened addict. He'd been hospitalized once for an overdose and served four years in prison for dealing. Authorities then made him an offer: He could get cheap heroin as long as he showed up at the center. There were no conditions, other than that he stop dealing.

The basic belief underlying Switzerland's heroin program is that its 30,000 or so addicts are not criminals, but people in need of help.

That liberal approach is opposed by the Association for Youth Without Drugs, which argues that abstinence is the only way to fight drug use. It's sponsoring a national referendum to ban all state-run drug programs, which will go before voters in September.

Vontobel, the Crossline director, says such a course would be an "absolute catastrophe."

"I used to work in abstinence therapy. I know how it can fail, I know many people just can't do it. I know people who died because of that," he says. "At least our program is a success in the respect that all these people are still alive."

Switzerland has seen its drug deaths drop from 399 in 1994 to 312 last year.