GENEVA – Swiss voters on Sunday appeared to be giving overwhelming support to a pioneering program providing government-authorized heroin to hardened addicts.
Projections based on early voting results Sunday indicated that 69 percent of voters approved making the program permanent. It has been credited with reducing crime and improving the health and daily lives of addicts since it began 14 years ago.
The projections were made by the widely respected gfs.bern institute for the state-owned SRG television and radio networks, based on actual voting returns.
But the forecasts showed voters' tolerance was stopping well short of approving a separate proposal to decriminalize marijuana use.
Parliament approved the heroin measure in a revision of Switzerland's narcotics law this past March, but conservatives challenged the decision and forced a national referendum under Switzerland's cherished direct democracy.
The heroin program has helped eliminate scenes of large groups of drug users shooting up openly in parks that marred Swiss cities in the 1980s and 1990s, supporters say.
The United States and the U.N. narcotics board have criticized the program as potentially fueling drug abuse, but other governments have started or are considering their own programs modeled on the system.
The marijuana issue was based on a separate citizens' initiative to decriminalize the consumption of marijuana and growing the plant for personal use. Projections by gfs.bern showed 66 percent of voters rejecting the initiative.
The government, which opposes the marijuana proposal, says it fears that liberalizing the rules could cause problems with neighboring countries.
"This could lead to a situation where you have some sort of cannabis tourism in Switzerland because something that is illegal in the EU would be legal in Switzerland," government spokesman Oswald Sigg told The Associated Press.
The marijuana program is offered in 23 discreet centers across Switzerland, which offer a range of support to nearly 1,300 addicts who haven't been helped by other therapies. Under careful supervision, they inject doses carefully measured to satisfy their cravings but not enough to cause a big high.
The aim is to help the addicts learn how to function in society, with counseling from psychiatrists and social workers.
Dr. Daniele Zullino, who heads the branch in Geneva, said that after two to three years in the program, one-third of the patients start abstinence programs and one-third change to methadone treatment.
Health insurance pays for the bulk of the program, which costs 26 million Swiss francs ($22 million) a year. All residents in Switzerland are required to have health insurance, with the government paying insurance premiums for those who cannot afford it.
Alain Hauert, spokesman for the right-wing Swiss People's Party which has led opposition to the program, says it is wrong that the health insurance pays for it. The party maintains that the government should invest more money in prevention and law enforcement.
Crimes committed by heroin addicts have dropped 60 percent since the program began in 1994, according to the Federal Office of Public Health.
And, Zullino said, patients reduce consumption of other narcotics once they start the heroin program and suffer less from psychiatric disorders.