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The 'Needle Park' 25 years on: the end of Zurich’s open drugs scene

The Platzspitz or “Needle Park” in Zurich was an open drugs scene in the 1980s and early 90s when heroin users could freely inject the drug without being arrested. As addicts and dealers flooded in from across Europe, the world looked on in horror, until authorities shut it down in 1992.

Located just behind the Swiss National Museum, close to the city’s central railway station, it was open from 1987. It gained notoriety as the situation spiraled out of control, with hundreds of dealers and addicts packed into the park, and many people desperately needing urgent medical care on a daily basis. A number of doctors volunteered their time, at first against the will of the authorities, to treat drug users with infected, weeping wounds or in cases of overdoses, and to hand out clean needles. The authorities then allowed the doctors to work in this way in the park.

However, the authorities later gave into heavy political pressure and police were sent in leading to chaotic scenes of addicts being forced to flee, without any alternative to turn to. No organised social support had been set up in its place. “Needle Park” closed for good on February 5, 1992. A heavy gate was put in place across the entrance to the park.

The abrupt end to the open scene led addicts and dealers to move to a new spot nearby in the Letten area, between an unused railway station and the side of the river Limmat. This spot was also eventually cleared by police in 1995.

The experience meant that a highly pragmatic approach to drug use was adopted in Switzerland. Needle exchanges were set up, clean injection rooms with medical staff on hand, a methadone prescription programme and even a heroin prescription programme now exists for heavily dependent addicts. 

(Images: Keystone)

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