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Swiss vote on legal heroin program underscores need for policy reform in UK

Danny Kushlick [Head of Policy and Communications, Transform Drug Policy Foundation]: "The same week that saw the 75th anniversary of the repeal of alcohol prohibition also coincided with recent moves towards legally regulated production (as well as supply) of cannabis in the Netherlands, and a referendum in Switzerland approving legally regulated production and supply of heroin by a huge margin.

The winning argument was that the now famous program, first set up in 1994, and currently benefiting about 1300 addicts (out of 26,000 in treatment), has significantly reduced drug-related crime, deaths and HIV rates. The provision of medically supervised heroin injection coupled with psychological support and other treatments has also seen lives stabilized and improved to the point where some of the formerly unemployed addicts have even been able to find and keep jobs.

To reach the same level in the UK as the Swiss program would require the Department of Health to expand the program to around 10,000 people out of the 200,000 in treatment here. However, the costs of doing so would pale into insignificance given the typical heroin addict is committing 400-500 crimes per year to fund their street-drug habit, and that no one ever died from an overdose or contracted HIV at a Swiss clinic.

In fact, as a (still suppressed) UK Government Home Office report from 2007 said: "Given the failure of supply-side interventions to have any significant effect on the drugs market, it is worth considering a greater management of the market by wider rolling out of injectable heroin prescription for highly dependent users through the NHS."

So why hasn't the Government done so?

Maybe because it wouldn't score cheap "tough on drugs" political points. Maybe because it would underline just a little too clearly that a move from prohibition to full regulation and control would work. We should not forget that the need to prescribe heroin in this way, arises out of the overarching system of prohibition that maximizes harms for those who become dependent on street heroin in the first place."

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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