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At the National Designer Drugs and Cocaine Conference in Bern, experts discuss the pros and cons of selling cocaine to severely addicts.

This content was published on June 3rd, 2004 - 2:23 pm

A corresponding program would closely follow the state heroin levy, which has been used successfully in Switzerland for 10 years.

There are an estimated 90,000 cocaine users in Switzerland. Most of them, however, use the white powder as an "after-work drug". You would therefore not be eligible for a medically prescribed delivery.

A cocaine delivery program could improve the situation of severely addicts, proponents argue. Others have their doubts. In the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), there is particular concern that jumping ahead too quickly on the cocaine issue could finally put an end to the laborious decriminalization of soft drugs.

With multiple dependencies

"A typical candidate for a prescribed dispensing is an addict with various addictions," says doctor Daniel Meili, who heads the Zurich heroin dispensing program. "Of the 150 heroin patients I look after, around a third could benefit from a cocaine dispensing."

These around 50 addicts came to consume the heroin, but also bought cocaine on the street, according to Meili. "That can cost you 10,000 to 20,000 francs a month, which often leads to crime related to acquisitions," the doctor continues.

His argument: the positive results of the state heroin distribution on addicts. According to proponents, they are in better health, can often go back to work and have thus found their feet again in life.

Meili observed that these positive changes did not occur in those who also consumed cocaine.

High death rate

"The risk of death among cocaine addicts is pretty high," says Meili. "Without treatment, many of them will die in the next 10 years."

The FOPH is not convinced that medically prescribed cocaine is the answer to the problems. "There is no evidence that such a program would be successful," said Markus Janns from the BAG.

The agency would be very reluctant to support such an attempt. "We have more important addictions to combat, such as alcohol and tobacco."

However, the BAG is primarily of the opinion that the political timing for such a controversial project is currently unfavorable. There is fear of a collision with the decriminalization of the consumption of soft drugs, which is being discussed by Parliament in the summer session that has just opened.

An overly brisk pace of cocaine dispensing could endanger the revision of the Narcotics Act, which has been pending for some time.

BAG director Thomas Zeltner recently said that there were no legal obstacles in the way of an attempt to do so. In the past he had always said that there would never be a cocaine sale in Switzerland.

The federal government should contribute to the costs

The final decision on whether to carry out such an experiment lies with the cantons. In Zurich, for example, the project has met with open ears. The authorities were hoping for financial support from the federal government.

For his part, BAG representative Jann waves it away. "If Zurich wants to lead the way, we will not oppose it, but rather follow developments with interest. But there is no reason for the federal government to contribute financially."

Trial on a small scale

At the conference in Bern, the Zurich doctors and social workers want to present plans for a pilot project in which around 20 cocaine addicts will take part.

Half of them are said to be addicts who are already in the heroin program. The other half are addicts whose cocaine addiction has already caused serious health problems.

Status as a "party drug"

"The program would be based on that of the heroin distribution," says Athos Staub from the Working Group for the Low-Risk Use of Drugs (Arud).

"Just because cocaine is also considered a party drug doesn't mean that we would distribute it on Saturday evening," said Staub. "People would have to come to us and use the drug in our rooms."

Staub and Meili are among the strongest proponents of cocaine delivery. "Ten years ago people said that dispensing heroin wouldn't work. But the fact is now that it has brought a lot of people a lot."

They draw their conviction from their experience of working on the drug front. "Over the past decade, the problems surrounding cocaine have worsened. Legal cocaine distribution could help addicts survive rather than die."

swissinfo, Imogen Foulkes
(Translation from English: Renat K├╝nzi)

Facts

Cocaine consumption results in massive damage to health.
There are around 90,000 cocaine users in Switzerland.
Most of them are casual sniffers or fixers.
Zurich experts present a program for the state distribution of cocaine.
Objective: To improve the health and living conditions of the addict.
Target group: Multiple addicts who use cocaine in addition to heroin.

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