Ruth Dreifuss in Malaysiakini: “Ex-Swiss president: War on drugs failed, treating addicts as patients will work”

Read original article in Malaysiakini

INTERVIEW | Thirty years ago, Switzerland was facing a drug crisis. It had the highest HIV infection rate in Western Europe and up to 1,000 drug users gathered daily in Zurich’s infamous Platzspitz park, dubbed “needle park.”

Realising that the “war on drugs” was an almighty failure, Ruth Dreifuss (above), who was interior minister from 1993 to 2002, during which time she also served a year as Switzerland’s president, spearheaded a successful transformation of policies.

Swiss authorities authorised experiments such as syringe exchange programmes and safe injection rooms offering a shower, bed and hygienic conditions under medical supervision.

The innovative policy of providing drug addicts with free methadone and clean needles greatly reduced deaths while cutting crime rates.

The number of drug injectors with HIV was reduced by over 50 percent in 10 years.

Overdose mortality among injectors was reduced by over 50 percent in the decade.

Delinquency related to drugs has been reduced enormously.

This success story may go against conventional logic but it’s clear that the current system of harsh penalties does not deter drug users, nor does it cripple the masterminds of the lucrative trade because it is always drug mules and drug addicts who are caught and suffer the harsh punishments, up to and including death.

Our kids were dying

Dreifuss turned 80 last month but she is not one for whom a quiet retirement is appealing.

Instead as the founder and president of the Global Commission for Drug Policy, she travels the world advocating a change in mindset.

“First of all, I think of myself as a mother, a mother to solve a problematic child. Drug users have problems, there were people with AIDS, people dying of overdoses at a young age – it was a phenomenon.

“So look who are the drug users – they are our kids. So, let’s find the solution that makes them out not as criminals but as humans,” she told Malaysiakini in an interview in KL on Friday.

Dreifuss was a pioneer in changing perspectives and convincing traditionalist mindsets that extending a friendly hand to drug addicts would bring them out of the shadows and return as functioning members of society.

She was in Malaysia to talk about the innovative plan of Health Minister Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad to decriminalise personal drug use and abandon a 40-year policy of harsh penalties which includes the death sentence.

An estimated three-quarters of Malaysians on death row are there for drug-related crimes. The Malaysian government has currently introduced a moratorium on all executions while it studies changes in the death penalty laws.

“Firstly, let me speak about the death penalty,” said Dreifuss.

“I am an activist for its abolition. I think the life is sacred and the role of the state is to protect life, not to take life.

“In relation to drug laws, I think that drug offences are not the type of crime where the country may sentence to death and execute.

Dreifuss said she was shocked when told recently that death penalty and extrajudicial killings are against human rights but they are also efficient.

“I can also answer it is not efficient and it is not terror. You will always find people who take this path because they think ‘I am at the good side -never will I be condemned to death’.

“But who will be condemned to death? There are small people, petty criminals. Those who are pushed towards it to escape from poverty.”

Jailing addicts worsens the problem

Dreifuss said the Swiss experience revealed that the jailing of drug addicts only made the problems worse.

“If somebody is ill there is no reason to put them in jail. If the person is consuming drugs and controlling the drug consumption and harming nobody, only harms himself, why should he be in prison?

“Is the prison not there to protect society against people who harm society and other people? I see no reason for this punishment and I see lives destroyed by being in jail. I see people who have criminal records, especially young people and those who could not find a job or continue their studies. I see only negative aspects of harsh punishment.”

Dreifuss said if an addict commits robbery or theft to support his habit, then for those crimes he must be treated no differently from a criminal, except that he should receive treatment in jail.

“Harm reduction and decriminalising encourage people not to be a criminal. I have the experience in Switzerland that when we introduced medical heroin that had been prescribed by the doctors and they can get in the clinic, these people are no longer criminal.

“This is perhaps the most incredible result of the heroin prescription programme when the criminal activities just disappear, the contamination of AIDS is much lower,” she said.

Can it work in Malaysia?

So does Dreifuss think Malaysia can make a success of transforming its policy on drugs?

“Criminalisation is one of the greatest obstacles to harm reduction and proper treatment because people cannot speak openly about the problems.

“Because they are afraid of the punishment, drug users are denied access to health and pharmaceutical services and this is the reason why the health minister said – ‘I want to do my job. My job is to cure the people and to bring them health services’.”

“This is the way I understand his position and this was also my position so let me do my job.

“This position of the independence of the role of the doctor in treating the patients in my view is absolutely important. Your minister of Health is very bold to say that in Malaysia. It is not only bold but it is logical. It is absolutely his duty to say ‘My responsibility is not to put obstacles in my activities’.”

Some might argue that Switzerland, being one of the most prosperous countries in the world, can afford to carry out programmes that might not work in developing economies like Malaysia.

“I often hear this argument that Switzerland has done it but others would fail. I say with my 40 years of experience in drug policy that harm reduction can be done by all kinds of country and what we put in place in Switzerland is absolutely good.

“The difference is perhaps how to pay the doctors and Switzerland is also less in corruption.

“This is important because corruption is part of political life – it is the general poison for society. In Switzerland, the police and the medical personnel (are well paid and) have the lowest level of corruption and that makes it easy to carry out these policies.”

Violence is not the solution

Asked about Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s (above) hardline attitude towards drug users in which 5,779 were killed in official anti-drug operations between July 2016 and August 2019, Dreifuss struggled to contain her dismay.

“That is not a war on drugs but a war on people. When you speak about war on drugs, never forget who will be on target and the target of the president is the poor people of the country.

“It is destroying the morality of the police because if you give the green light on destroying people, you will have to rebuild and you will have difficulty to bring back the state to its real obligation to protect the population.”

Dreifuss also lamented cases in which people are being sentenced to death for using cannabis for medication.

These include the case of Muhammad Lukman, who was sentenced to death in August 2018 for possession of 3.1 litres of cannabis oil, 279g of compressed cannabis and 1.4kg of substances containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

“It is terrible to think about the fate of this person. I think it is really necessary to make a large movement to abolish the death penalty and for all crimes in my view. To outlaw the cold-blooded murder of the people by the state,” she said.