Switzerland, HIV and the power of pragmatism: lessons for drug policy development

Int J Drug Policy. 2012 Jan;23(1):82-6. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2011.07.011. Epub 2011 Aug 17.


Switzerland in the 1980s was an epicentre of HIV as open drug injection became part of the urban scene, especially in Zurich. Cracks appeared in Switzerland's long commitment to policing as the main drug-control strategy as law enforcement was unable to contain the health and social consequences of the rapid spread of drug injection. In the early stages of the epidemic, the pioneering health care providers who brought technically illegal harm reduction services into the open drug scene in Zurich helped open the exploration at the federal level of more balanced drug policy. Carefully evaluated pilot experiences in low-threshold methadone, needle exchange, and eventually heroin-assisted therapy yielded evidence of significant HIV prevention and crime reduction that was convincing not only to policy-makers but also to a skeptical Swiss public. Whilst not all countries have Switzerland's resource base, the Swiss experience still holds many useful lessons for establishing evidence-based policy on illicit drugs.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Crime / prevention & control
  • Drug and Narcotic Control / history*
  • HIV Infections / etiology
  • HIV Infections / prevention & control*
  • Harm Reduction
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Humans
  • Policy Making*
  • Public Opinion
  • Substance Abuse, Intravenous / prevention & control*
  • Substance Abuse, Intravenous / rehabilitation
  • Switzerland / epidemiology
  • Urban Health