Government-supplied free heroine for heroine addicts. It sounds crazy, but a decade after just such a project began in Utrecht, it seems like it actually works.
Both addicts and their carers speak very positively of the once-controversial project. The ‘patients’ no longer need to steal to buy their daily shots and some have even got themselves jobs. The nuisance caused by addicts in Utrecht – and now in many other major cities as well – has all but disappeared and there are few new addicts appearing on the scene. Society is no longer paying for their petty theft and illness.
The success of free supply has also got through to politicians in The Hague. Heroin became an official medicine in 2006. Last year, MPs passed legislation designating supply of the drug under medical supervision as a recognised treatment of ‘therapy resistant’ addicts.
Old people’s home
There are at present 17 clinics in the Netherlands where addicts can be given free heroin. In Rotterdam, there’s even a special home for elderly addicts. There too, most of the critics have fallen silent.
Free supply in the Utrecht clinic is strictly monitored via cameras and two-way mirrors. Co-ordinator Tinka Hille explains: “Of course, we don’t want them smuggling the stuff out of the building.” The patients are allowed to smoke exact amounts of the drug on the premises three times a day.
The heroin is pure and is produced chemically. It does not contain any impurities as can occur in the naturally produced variety. The strength of the drug is also constant, allowing exact doses to be measured. This is important as the chemically produced heroin is much stronger than the illicit product.
The danger that addicts will try to get onto a programme offering free heroin for life – one of the most persistent criticisms - is played down by Ms Hille: “An addict has to be rock bottom before he or she can be considered for the programme. You’ve got to have tried and failed to kick the habit a number of times. Even addicts don’t want to get to that point.”
The cost of supplying free heroin is also a point of criticism. Are the benefits worth the investment?
“Free supply costs 17,000 euros per client per year,” she explains. “It sounds like a lot, but the savings on hospital fees, legal and policing expenses and the general crime costs are far greater. Society is on average nearly 13,000 euros better off per patient per year.”
A commission which looked into the programme has confirmed its cost effectiveness.
None of the addicts in the Utrecht programme have been in trouble with the law since starting the treatment. The mere fact that they know they will get their heroin every day means they are calm. They don’t need to steal any more. They can even think about what they want to do with what’s left of their lives. They used to spend the whole day just worrying about scoring.
Three of Ms Hille’s clients have got themselves little jobs. Betty is one of them, but she doesn’t want to be interviewed: “It frightens me.” She works as a cleaner in the clinic where she gets her daily heroin dose. During the talk with her co-ordinator, she carries steadily on with her polishing. Then she has time for a smoke and chat with the porter.
“Look,” says Ms Hille. “That’s what it’s all about. A bit of peace and quiet, for the junkie and everyone else.”