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Vancouver addicts get a fix - Swiss-style

Addicts will have access to clean needles, methadone and drug treatment facilities (Fife police)

Vancouver is set to open the first "injecting room" in North America, adopting Switzerland's approach to intravenous drug users.

Officials in Canada hope the facilities - which provide drug users with a safe place to inject - will help reduce the city's high rate of drug addiction, overdoses and HIV infection.

"The purpose of this - as it was in Zurich - is to tackle the open drug market to encourage intravenous drug users to inject in a safe setting," says Geoff Meggs of Vancouver's mayor's office.

He said the mayor, Larry Campbell, was inspired by Switzerland's success in coping with the problems of intravenous drug use.

Along with a safe place to inject, the Canadian injecting rooms will provide users with access to clean needles, methadone and drug treatment facilities.

Vancouver is home to one of the biggest intravenous drug scenes in North America with some 12,000 addicts, 40 per cent of which have HIV or Aids.

"Certain parts of downtown Vancouver are plagued by a very high number of intravenous drug users with very high rates of overdose drug deaths, HIV and Hepatitis C," says Meggs.

Drug-related deaths

In the past decade 2,000 addicts have died of drug overdoses.

The use of injecting rooms has helped in Switzerland, which has seen drug-related deaths drop by 50 per cent since the programme was introduced in the early 1990s.

Switzerland also saw HIV infection rates fall between 1992 and 2000, although the rate of new infection is now increasing again.

"Injecting rooms are also good for the public at large, because drug users are brought inside instead of injecting in the parks and on the streets," says Ruth Vogt, who is head of drugs policy at Zurich's social work department.

For its part, Washington has expressed outrage over the initiative, as it did when Canada legalised marijuana for medicinal purposes.

John Walters, who heads the US anti-drugs office, says the injecting rooms are equivalent to "state-sponsored suicide".

Drug policy

Most countries are accustomed to strict policies on drug use, such as those implemented by Canada in the past, Meggs says.

"There is concern that this programme will actually condone the use of IV drugs," he says.

For many years, Canadian officials tried to control the problem by clearing dealers from the streets. But despite more arrests, the problem hasn't improved.

Now Vancouver's mayor wants the government to focus more of its energy on the health problems associated with drug addiction.

Earlier this year, Campbell visited injecting rooms in Zurich, and was impressed by the facilities.

He is awaiting approval by the government for the project, which is expected to commence this summer.

swissinfo, Karin Kamp and Faryal Mirza

Vancouver injecting rooms

Swiss injecting rooms provide free needles, cheap meals, showers and washing facilities.
Since they were set up in the early 1990s, drug-related deaths in Switzerland have dropped by 50 per cent.
About 18,000 people took part in Switzerland's methadone programme in 2001.

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