One gets this feeling always
except high up: this feeling of average,
of utter soulless ordinariness, something
Lawrence, Twilight in Italy
Its a bright March
Saturday afternoon and Im walking along the Limmatquai,
in the center of Zürich, looking for one of the few
Starbucks on the continent. And there it is, a muted,
three-story brown and lemon colored building, filled with
happy 20-somethings drinking Hazelnut Carmel Mochas and
eating walnut brownies. Theres a festive air of
self-satisfaction here, as there is in most of Zürich,
pride in enjoying one of the worlds highest standards
If not the highest. Zürich
was recently ranked the number one city in the world to
live in, besting perennial favorite Vancouver. Its
a clean, sparkling city, with a fine public transportation
system, plenty of banks, Orell Füsseli (a great English
bookshop), dozens of cinemas (although the German and
French subtitles tend to cover half the screen), wonderful
shopping and just about every kind of cuisine available
in its restaurants. And James Joyce is buried just up
the hill in Flutern cemetery.
also has the highest per-capita income in the world. No
wonder everyone looks happy, healthy and sane.
However, there is the Swiss
mania for order. Alles in ordnung! Three words
which bring a smile to every Schweitzer face. Everything
in Switzerland is ordered and regulated and ruled and
controlled. For example, there are garbage police who
check the recycling bags to make sure there are no glass
bottles hidden inside (when I lived in Switzerland I used
to slip in wine bottlesone of my little acts of
rebellion). Many rental contracts include a clause which
forbids flushing the toilet after 10 p.m. so as not to
disturb the neighbors in their happy sleep. Even leaves
seem to fall off the trees in an orderly pattern.
As they should. The Swiss
really believe they do everything right, and I mean everything.
They shake their heads in puzzled amazement that everyone
else doesnt follow their fine example.
Naturally, they have one
of the worlds biggest drug problems.
Its the nature of
repression. If everything is completely structured, what
happens to the human impulse for spontaneity, for taking
risks, what Nietzsche in Human, All Too Human defined
as the "excess that gives the free spirit the dangerous
privilege of being permitted to live experimentally?"
This is one of the great
differences between Europe and America: in America, you
are allowed the privilege of failure. I can already hear
the liberals screaming about social inequality, poverty
and racism; but the sad truth about Europes socialist
democracies is that failure is not an option. Nearly everyone
lives the same cookie-cutter, middle-class life, a life
of insurances, pensions, job contracts and stress-free
retirements. The bureaucratically-managed middle, excluding
all that is threatening, uncertain, unstable, confusing
and chaoticthose things Henry Miller called the
"sterling human qualities."
The Rights of Man have
been transformed from liberté, egalité
and fraternité into comfort, safety and
security. Not bad, as the Germans like to say. Unless
you happen to like a little risk and spontaneity in your
The response to repression
takes various forms. One is the so-called enlightened
European openness about sexuality. Another is the permissive
attitude toward alcohol and tobacco. A third is increasingly
liberal ideas about illegal drug use. These are three
of the few areas where Europeans can actually act out
against their controlled and regulated lives.
This goes a long way in
explaining why there are 30,000 heroin addicts in a country
the size of Ohio.
Across the Limmat river
on the other side of the Limmatquai is the Platzspitz,
the park which became a famous haven for heroin users
in the 1980s, after the Swiss started decriminalizing
drug use. In America, drug addicts are classified as criminals.
In Switzerland, drug addicts are considered a social problem.
Based on this premise, the Swiss police stopped arresting
drug users and the Swiss government allowed unlimited
cultivation of cannabis (with the caveat that it cannot
be used for narcotic purposes. Right). Switzerland, the
land of cuckoo clocks and chocolate, unnumbered bank accounts
and the Davos summit, has become paradiso for drug
The Swiss governments
heroin-assisted treatment program has generated a lot
of discussion in the media, both in Europe and in America.
It has also generated a lot of misinformation. The Swiss
government does buy heroin and supply it to addictsbut
only for the most lost, beaten-down, desperate and hard-core
of addictsincluding addicts who are in Swiss prisons,
ironically enough, for selling illegal drugs. Heroin,
cocaine and crack are still readily available on the street,
which is where most Swiss drug users still make their
injection center in Geneva
Whats strange, though,
is that the use of these drugs is decriminalizedas
long as they arent used on the street but in one
of the Swiss Department of Welfares official injection
or inhalation rooms. There, drug addicts are free to bring
their street purchases and, with government-supplied clean
needles and other paraphernalia, shoot up or smoke under
the supervision of health care professionals.
And being Switzerland,
each addict has to take a ticket number and wait in line,
in a nice orderly manner. Then, when its your turn,
wash your hands, step up to the stainless steel table,
accept the clean works from the health care professional
and mainline away. Once youve shot up or smoked
your way into Nirvana, its back out on the street
This is the Swiss fix for
Officially, its all
part of the Swiss Federal Councils 4-part drug policy:
repression (of illegal drugs), prevention (of drug addiction
in general), treatment (of drug addicts) and harm reduction
(to addicts and society). By taking visible drug use off
the streets and controlling it, the Swiss feel they are
making significant progress with their "radical" solution
to drug use.
Yes, drug related crime
has decreased and the streets and parks of Zürich
are safe and clean. The program also offers methadone
treatment for addicts who actually want to try to kick
the habit and become normal, functioning members of Swiss
society. But are these the results of this specific Swiss
program or would there be results, regardless of the form
of drug treatment program used? Thats the question
no one wants to consider. Otherwise, the Swiss would have
to admit they might be wrong. That will never happen.
My own attitude toward
drug use is that I dont want to inject or smoke
anything that will make the morning after resemble a Kurt
Seligmann painting. But I understand why people want to
escape what William Burroughs in Nova Express called
"a precarious aqualung existence in someone elses
stale movie." Its the human need to take risks,
even risks which pose potential harm to our selves. As
the Canadian AIDS/HIV Legal Center has written: "society's
failure to accept drug use as a legitimate form of risk-taking
poses a significant barrier to tolerance of drug use."
But tolerance and control
are two very different issues.
Addiction by its very definition
is something uncontrollable. So it seems particularly
futile and stupid for the Swiss to try to control, order
and regulate drug addiction the way they do recycling
or train timetables. Oh, and theres also the little
matter of the Hippocratic oath, which Swiss doctors violate
every time they assist someone to harm themselves in a
clean and professional environment.
studio of addiction, secret control and manipulation is
alive and well in Switzerland. There is talk of a referendum
for the 2003 election to legalize marijuana. Is this the
wave of the future? Should governments give up the fight
against illegal drugs and just legalize, regulate and
control them the way they do alcohol, tobacco and sex?
Can life itself be made perfectly safe, perfectly ordinary,
perfectly middle-class, with little or no risk involved?
What will happen when all high-risk behavior becomes just
another commodity in the scripted life of capitalist democracies?
When chaos, uncertainty
and spontaneity are brought under State control, that
will truly be the death of free spirits everywhere. Sometime
in the future, I suppose, all forms of insubordination
will be controlled by bureaucrats and professionals. Step
into the clean room, take your number and wait your turn