Opinion: America Needs Heroin-Assisted Treatment

By Zachary Siegel 02/16/16

Switzerland has been widely criticized for its liberal drug policy but perhaps there's a lesson to be learned from the Swiss drug model.

Opinion: America Needs Heroin Assisted Treatment
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A recent op-ed by Michael R. Urth, an ACLU board member in Ohio, convincingly argued for the seemingly radical approach to ameliorating the current opiate crisis in America: heroin-assisted treatment (HAT). 

That’s right, Urth enlightened readers to the many, often counterintuitive, benefits of simply giving heroin users steady and safe doses of heroin. He used Switzerland as a case study for how a country ought to respond when it  is overridden with overdose deaths and increased rates of HIV. 

In 1992, the Swiss government approved HAT and by 1994 implemented it across the country. By 1997, it was hailed as a resounding success. 

Urth cites the following data collected by various institutes monitoring HAT programs: 1) Overdose deaths fell by more than 50%, largely due to users no longer had to risk unpredictable potency of illegal heroin 2) decreased HIV infection rates because the clinics issued sterile syringes 3) property crimes committed by heroin users declined by 90% because no one had to steal to get their fix 4) the number of new heroin users dropped by more than 80%, allegedly because entrenched users did not pay for their habits by recruiting new users to sell drugs to and lastly 5) overall health and quality of life improved dramatically because clinics acted as a bridge to other health and social services from which heroin users were typically barred. 

HAT, said Urth, taught the Swiss several important lessons regarding heroin use. For instance, that most of the harm related to heroin use is not caused by heroin as such, but by the policies employed to treating heroin use as a crime instead of a public health crisis. Because the Swiss took a health-centered approach, said Urth, they improved the quality of lives of users and substantially reduced harm to proximate communities.

The Swiss model has worked so well that it's now covered by government  health insurance and is even being expanded into Swiss prisons, where it is reducing violence, corruption and blood-borne disease. 

Urth concludes that America needs a paradigmatic shift in the way it approaches the heroin epidemic, one that uses evidence and compassion rather than punishment and policing. 

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.