This award-winning series of stories reported in late 2018 explores how Switzerland, France and other European countries implemented drug policies and programs that have diminished their rates of opioid overdose and related infections.

Both the Swiss and the French accomplished this by supporting drug users in different ways.

Switzerland led Europe with the first drug consumption rooms and heroin assisted treatment facilities. The Swiss approach is all about removing barriers and getting the majority of drug users into treatment. This resulted in trickled down benefits for law enforcement as the street drug market weakened and the theft rate dropped.

The French approach is about seeing drug users as people first and supporting the whole person. There are more than 300 harm reduction centers, that include needle exchanges, places to shower, do laundry, meet with social workers, psychiatrists and medical doctors. In addition to that, there are 480 addiction treatment facilities. The whole network works together to support drug users to live their best lives.

This series won two first-place national awards from the Association of Health Care Journalists and Local Media Digital Innovation Awards.

woman standing on bridge in France with the Eiffel Tower in the background.
NC Health News reporter Taylor Knopf visited France and Switzerland to learn how other countries have handled their own opioid crises. Photo credit: Andy Specht

Why I went to Europe to learn about the American drug crisis

Opioid death rates in the U.S. continue to rise, despite efforts to curb the epidemic of deaths by overdose. On the other side of the Atlantic, overdose deaths have plummeted. What are they doing differently?

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man fills little bottles with medication
Switzerland’s low-threshold opioid substitution program allows stable patients to receive take-home doses of methadone, buprenorphine or morphine. Here, a worker at a substitution program in Geneva prepares a week of doses for a patient. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

Switzerland couldn’t stop drug users. So it started supporting them

Switzerland had out of control, open drug scenes in the 1980s. People were dying in the streets, so the Swiss took drastic measures to reduce the deaths and get people into treatment. Their approach is effective and unorthodox.

Young man loads a medical needle from a bottle with a clear substance
Staff worker at the heroin-assisted treatment facility in Geneva prepares injectable heroin before the patients arrive. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

Switzerland fights heroin with heroin

This is the second in our series exploring how Switzerland has dealt with opioid addiction in different — and sometimes controversial — ways cutting overdose deaths and related infections.

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Thilo Beck, who directs the heroin-assisted treatment program in Zurich, talks about the difficulty in convincing his colleagues that using heroin is a viable way to maintain substance users.

The streets weren’t safe for drug users. So these countries created spaces for them.

In Switzerland, France and other European countries, health officials find safe consumption facilities help drive down rates of disease transmission, overdose and even consumption.

Woman opens up windows in a bright green injection room
Tamara Chkheidze, a long-time staff worker at the drug consumption room in Geneva, prepares the consumption room for visitors one early November morning. Chkheidze said the newer building was deliberately placed near the train station where many people were already using. “It couldn’t be far away,” she said. “And most of them don’t have a home to do it properly at home. This was something comfortable for neighbors and for them.” Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

To tackle addiction, the French look beyond drugs to care for the person

France found that in order to reach people who use drugs, they first need to have a place where they’re comfortable enough to relax.

Two men standing together, smiling, facing the camera
Thibaut (right) is a social worker who heads of the rural mobile outreach program from Bordeaux. Here, he’s with a guy visiting the harm reduction center in Bordeaux last November. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

As the opioid death count climbs, will North Carolina try what’s worked elsewhere?

Officials in the U.S. have been reluctant to embrace some of the more “radical” pieces of European drug control and harm reduction policy, even as the body count rises.

But some officials are starting to broaden their thinking. Will it be enough? And will it be soon enough?

man standing in front of photo backdrop with cameras and recording equipment in the foreground
State Sen. Jim Davis told crowds gathered at the Opioid Misuse & Overdose Prevention Summit Tuesday that his “Swan Song” piece of opioid legislation includes lifting the ban on state dollars to needle exchanges. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf Credit: Taylor Knopf