Why Denmark Can't Give Heroin Away

By Dirk Hanson 03/25/11
Heroin program fails in Denmark. Photo via scutdog

“Junkies say No to Free Heroin!” blared the Danish daily Politiken in a recent front-page headline. For 10 months now, the paper reports, Denmark’s drug addicts have been encouraged to pick up free hits of prescription-grade heroin at dozens of health care centers around the country. But so far, few of Denmark’s estimated 60,000 junkies have availed themselves of the offer -- and health officials are scratching their heads to figure out why. While the dope doled out by the Danish government is 80% pure -- and addicts can’t be prosecuted for shooting up -- only 80 users have accepted the government’s offer. “The treatment is constrictive, closely supervised and controlled,” points out Denmark’s Surgeon General. Each dose is administered under strict medical supervision. Some addicts don’t want “to lose their freedom,” he said. “If the junkies say no to state-paid heroin,” the Danish paper sniped, “the state has obviously got to revise the program.” Obviously. But how? The British government, which is mulling over a similar program, thinks it may have an answer to the problem: It’s considering a measure that would deny welfare benefits to heroin addicts who refuse treatment.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]