Hoping for a New ″High″ in Kicking Drug Addiction | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 04.03.2002
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Hoping for a New "High" in Kicking Drug Addiction

Following in the footsteps of the successful Swiss experiment, Germany launches its own heroin-prescription programme in Bonn. If successful, it might save the country millions of euro in combating rampant drug abuse.


Shooting up till the next craving strikes

A visit to any one of Germany's big train stations tells you that the country has a huge drug problem on its hands.

Many stations are littered with scruffy junkies with the tell-tale glazed look about them. Begging for the next shot is common and though the police routinely clear up the stations, the drug-addicts surface again once the coast is clear.

After years of hemming and hawing, the German government for the first time has decided to take a bold step in hopes of helping its estimated 120,000 heroin addicts kick the habit.

Taking inspiration from Switzerland, it has opened an emergency unit in Bonn for heroin addicts, where for the first time regulated and legal doses of heroin will be administered to hard-core addicts.

The project is part of a three-year German clinical study, the aim of which is to ascertain whether a treatment that includes administering heroin helps addicts stabilise their health and livelihood better than the substitute drug Methadone.

Switzerland a model for fighting drug abuse

Switzerland has been a pioneer of the heroin-prescription programme.

After grappling for years with ruthless drug dealers, criminal drug addicts and a failed attempt to manage a "Needle Park", the Swiss government began the experiment in January 1994.

The results were surprising successful.

Surveys discovered that heroin prescription was feasible, it produced no black market in diverted heroin, the health of the participants improved remarkably and heroin per se caused very few, if any problems when used in a controlled fashion and administered in hygienic conditions.

The Swiss government also quickly discovered that the heroin-prescription programme saved it millions of francs yearly and reduced crime, disease and death.

The Swiss have also created the legal Fixerrdume or "injection rooms" where addicts can shoot up in a regulated, sanitary environment.

This, the Swiss believe does away with the open injection of illicit drugs in public places and the more discreet use of drugs in unsanctioned bars and seedy motels.

Two-pronged approach

The German government hopes to emulate the Swiss model and achieve the same positive results with its project.

About 100 long-term addicts who have been unresponsive so far to therapies and treatments, will receive drugs under the supervision of a medical doctor in Bonn.

Half of them will receive pure heroin, the other half the substitute drug methadone. Both groups will also undergo psychological and social counselling and will also receive general medical care.

Germany's Federal Drug Commissioner was reported as saying that after comparing and analysing the two treatments, one would get a clearer picture of whether it is really the substance or the psycho-social therapy that does the trick and is more effective.

The German Health Authority is clear that patients will be taken care of in future even if the study fails to produce any conclusive results at the end of three years.

But whatever the result, one thing is clear: doctors and health officials will be more knowledgeable about treating drug abuse in the long run.

Reducing crime and death

Experts estimate that there are about 7,000 terminally ill patients among the 120,000 heroin-addicts in Germany, who are not reached by the existing treatments for drug addiction.

This is the group that is most likely to die from the consumption of drugs, and the group that Caspers-Merk hopes to reach with the new heroin project in Bonn.

The aim she says is to reduce the number of deaths from drug overdose, improve security in the cities and give the addicts a chance to survive.

Michael Krausz, the Head of the Federal-wide study hopes to improve the health standard of the participants as well as drastically slash their drug consumption.

The aim of the project is to take drug addicts off the street and break through the vicious cycle of dependence and indulging in crime to afford the next shot. In the long run, the new state-financed programme offers participants a chance to shake off drug dependence once and for all, he believes.

But the bold new programme has also unleashed a wave of criticism. Opponents claim that the German government is now officially facilitating drug abuse at the cost of 665,000 euro alone in Bonn.

Altogether seven German cities are participating in the new heroin-prescription programme.

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