Mainline Switzerland
By Bruce Gatenby

One gets this feeling always in Switzerland,
except high up: this feeling of average,
of utter soulless ordinariness, something
—D.H. Lawrence, Twilight in Italy

It’s a bright March Saturday afternoon and I’m 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. There’s a festive air of self-satisfaction here, as there is in most of Zürich, pride in enjoying one of the world’s highest standards of living.

If not the highest. Zürich was recently ranked the number one city in the world to live in, besting perennial favorite Vancouver. It’s 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.

Zürich’s population 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 bottles—one 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 doesn’t follow their fine example.

Naturally, they have one of the world’s biggest drug problems.

It’s 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 Europe’s 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 chaotic—those 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 life.

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 1980’s, 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 users.

The Swiss government’s 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 addicts—but only for the most lost, beaten-down, desperate and hard-core of addicts—including 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 purchases.

The injection center in Geneva

What’s strange, though, is that the use of these drugs is decriminalized—as long as they aren’t used on the street but in one of the Swiss Department of Welfare’s 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 it’s 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 you’ve shot up or smoked your way into Nirvana, it’s back out on the street with you.

This is the Swiss fix for drug addiction.

Officially, it’s all part of the Swiss Federal Council’s 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? That’s 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 don’t 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 else’s stale movie." It’s 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 there’s 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.

Burroughs’ reality 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 in line...