Pubdate: Sun, 04 Jun 2006
Source: Cape Argus (South Africa)
Copyright: 2006 Cape Argus.
Author: Jeremy Laurance
Bookmark: (Heroin)
Bookmark: (Methadone)
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)
Bookmark: (Treatment)


The liberalisation of drug laws in Zurich has led to a massive fall 
in the number of new heroin users, according to a study published on 
Friday. Now Britain, which has the highest number of drug deaths in 
Europe, is being urged to follow suit, writes Jeremy Laurance

Drugs charities called on Saturday for Britain to abandon its tough 
approach to heroin use after research showed one European city has 
cut the number of new addicts by transforming the image of heroin 
into a "loser drug".

The UK should follow the example of the Swiss capital Zurich, which 
adopted a liberal drug policy a decade ago and has seen an 82% 
decline in new users of heroin, experts say.

The change has been achieved by offering drug addicts in Switzerland 
"substitution" treatment with injectable heroin on prescription, as 
well as oral methadone, needle exchange and "shooting galleries" 
where they can give themselves their fix.

'Attractiveness fading for young people'

The new approach has medicalised drug use and removed its glamour, 
researchers say. Crime and deaths linked with drugs have fallen, and 
the image of heroin use has been transformed from a rebellious act to 
an illness that needs therapy.

"Finally, heroin seems to have become a loser drug, with its 
attractiveness fading for young people," Carlos Nordt, of the 
Psychiatric University Hospital in Zurich, said.

The Lancet accuses the British government of resisting reforms such 
as the introduction of drug consumption rooms - safe injecting houses 
where addicts can take their fix - which are contributing to 
Britain's death rate from illegal drug use, the highest in Europe.

Their introduction was first recommended by the Home Affairs Select 
Committee in 2002. Last week a report from the Joseph Rowntree 
Foundation, backed by police chiefs, urged the government to act. 
"After four years and thousands of needless drug-related deaths, a 
thorough trial of drug consumption rooms is a requirement the 
government cannot afford to refuse a second time," the Lancet says in 
an editorial.

Responding to the report, Vernon Coaker, the Home Office minister, 
reiterated the government's objection that drug consumption rooms 
risked increasing localised dealing and anti-social behaviour.

The Tories said they would consider the proposal. Edward Garner, 
shadow home affairs minister, said: "If this is to be used as a 
stepping stone to actually getting people off drugs we will look at 
it carefully."

There are an estimated 280 000 drug users in the UK, most taking 
heroin and crack cocaine, and about 2 500 deaths a year.

Professor John Strang, director of the National Addiction Centre at 
the Maudsley, said: "If there is something magical about what the 
Swiss have done it is not handing out the heroin - it is the heroin 
mixed with routine and drudgery. All the drugs are consumed on the 
premises and the patients have to come in three times a day for their 
dose. It is extremely medicalised.

"The rebellious nature of drug use has been institutionalised - in 
the same way that punk was institutionalised when it was adopted by 
the fashion industry."

Writing in The Lancet, Nordt and his colleague Rudolf Stohler say 
drug use in Zurich rose rapidly from 80 new registered users in 1975 
to 850 new users in 1990. It culminated in open drug scenes at the 
Platzspitz ("Needle Park") and subsequently at the former railway 
station Letten.

Since 1991, when substitution treatment became available to all 
heroin users, the number of new addicts has dropped sharply to 150 in 
2002. The overall number of heroin addicts has declined by 4% a year, 
even though the average length of time each user spends on the drug 
has increased.

The researchers say the finding counters critics of the liberal 
approach who predicted that it would increase drug use. Despite 
giving addicts readier access to the drugs they want, drug use has 
fallen. Deaths from overdoses and drug seizures have also declined, they say.

Supporters of the approach hailed the study yesterday as evidence 
that the policy works. Drug use in the UK continues to rise, figures show.

Victor Adebowale, chief executive of drugs charity Turning Point, 
said: "Heroin prescribing should be part of the mix of getting people 
to succeed in treatment. Experience abroad has shown that prescribing 
heroin helps to stabilise some users who have tried and failed with a 
methadone prescription, and have been in and out of detox and rehab."

A spokeswoman for Drugscope said: "We would very much like to see 
heroin prescribing extended here. There is a lot of international 
evidence that it can help entrenched drug users to stabilise their 
habit and move to a drug free lifestyle." - The Independent
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman