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Vote on Govt-cleared heroin program

world Updated: Nov 30, 2008 10:30 IST

Swiss voters are deciding Sunday whether to make permanent Switzerland's pioneering program to give hardened addicts government-authorized heroin.

Public opinion surveys leading up to the referendum indicated strong support for the program, which has been credited with reducing crime and improving the health and daily lives of addicts since it began 14 years ago.

Parliament has already approved the measure, but under Switzerland's cherished direct democracy the voters will have the last word in the referendum prompted by a challenge from conservatives.

The heroin program has helped eliminate scenes of large groups of drug users shooting up openly in parks that marred Swiss cities in the 1980s and 1990s, supporters say.

The United States and the U.N. narcotics board have criticized the program as potentially fueling drug abuse, but other governments have been starting or are considering their own programs modeled on the system.

Switzerland has 23 discreet centers which offer a range of support to nearly 1,300 addicts who haven't been helped by other therapies. Under careful supervision, they inject doses carefully measured to satisfy their cravings but not enough to cause a big high.

The aim is to help the addicts learn how to function in society, with counseling from psychiatrists and social workers. Dr. Daniele Zullino, who heads the branch in Geneva, said that after two to three years in the program, one-third of the patients start abstinence-programs and one-third change to methadone treatment.

A mid-November survey of 1,209 voters by the respected gfs.bern institute indicated 63 percent of voters favored the program compared with 21 percent opposed. The poll had a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.

Health insurance pays for the bulk of the program, which costs 26 million Swiss francs ($22 million) a year. All residents in Switzerland are required to have health insurance, with the government paying insurance premiums for those who cannot afford it. Alain Hauert, spokesman for the right-wing Swiss People's Party which has led opposition to the program, says it is wrong that the health insurance pays for it. The party maintains that government should invest more money in prevention and law enforcement. Crimes committed by heroin addicts have dropped 60 percent since the program began in 1994, according to the Federal Office of Public Health.

And, Zullino said, patients reduce consumption of other narcotics once they start the heroin program and suffer less from psychiatric disorders.