By Ruth Dreifuss

Drug overdose deaths in the United States have tripled since 2010. And so it makes sense that President Obama has announced, as he did late last month, new initiatives to fight the epidemic of prescription drug and heroin abuse in the United States.

As the former head of state of Switzerland, where innovations in drug policy have been front and center for years, I have learned much about how to prevent heroin overdoses, improve the lives of people who use drugs and create a safer environment for their communities. It is a complex puzzle, but there are key pieces that, when used together, create a public health approach with long-lasting positive effects.
The United States could take some important lessons from Switzerland's success.
In the past 20 years, Switzerland and other countries, such as Portugal and Uruguay, have implemented policies that are people-centered, focused on health and most importantly, keeping people alive -- all while respecting human rights. Switzerland's federal government focused on reducing the harms of drug use among people who inject drugs, creating supervised injection sites and offering substance analysis services and access to opiate substitution therapy, mainly through methadone and even medical heroin.
The country also complemented these harm-reduction interventions with prevention programs. To ensure these policies had citizen acceptance, the Swiss government created forums aimed at overcoming the stigma and marginalization of people who use drugs.
Our success with these policies is not only reflected in the stories that we hear from people who use drugs, but also from the rigorous evaluation we have undertaken. According to government officials, in the first decade alone, drug-related deaths have been reduced by 50%, and approximately 1,300 dependent users are now given maintenance doses of heroin via 23 specialized clinics, which has resulted in an 82% drop in patients selling heroin on the streets.
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Thumbnail: Flickr CC J McDowell