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UN report attacks Swiss drug policy

Switzerland's federal drug programme has come under fire in a new United Nations report. The UN's International Narcotics Control Board said countries which allow addicts to take drugs in special centres could be breaking international law.

This content was published on February 23, 2000 - 20:36

Switzerland's federal drug programme has come under fire from a newly published United Nations report. The UN's International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) said countries which allow addicts to take drugs in special centres could be breaking international law by facilitating drug abuse.

Switzerland was specifically named in the report, along with Germany, the Netherlands and Spain. It comes as a disappointment to the Swiss government, which likes to think of itself as forward thinking in its attitude to drug law.

In Switzerland, the State provides controlled amounts of heroin for known addicts and makes available drug injection rooms where users are provided with clean needles. But the UN panel report criticised both these methods, saying that they are more likely to increase drug abuse.

Paul Dietschy of the Federal Health Department strongly disagrees. "We think that it is not at all true," he says. "Our drug injection rooms are pretty well controlled. I would also point out that when we invited the UN board to visit the centres they did not come."

Dietschy also rejects the panel's verdict that the methods favoured by the Swiss government simply move the drugs problem off the streets. The provision of heroin and of drug injection rooms may be controversial, he concedes, but the federal authorities insist they're effective.

"We have very good results," he adds. "Positive HIV tests in Switzerland have fallen from more than 3,000 cases in 1986 to less than 1,000 in 1998."

Switzerland, it seems, is unlikely to be swayed by the UN's opinion on drug control. More often, says Dietschy, it is in fact the UN narcotics board that can learn from national governments.

"If you go back to the UN board's position in the last 30 years," he argues, "you see that they were against the prescription of methadone in the seventies and against needle exchange programmes in the mid-eighties. Both are now widely used by European countries, suggesting that the UN's experts are usually a few years behind the real situation."

Switzerland's response to the UN report doesn't amount to a total rejection of the findings. Indeed, the Department of Health points out that much of the report praises the work being done by the Swiss and by other governments around the world.

All the relevant authorities are in agreement about the need to fight drug abuse - their only difference of opinion is in how that can be done.

By Mark Ledsom.

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