The Swiss are ahead of us again - this time on drug reform

The British have always been beastly about the Swiss. Oscar Wilde thought the Alpine republic was inhabited solely by theologians and waiters; Sydney Smith argued that it was an inferior version of Scotland. The consensus seems to be that the Swiss did not deserve their extravagantly beautiful landscape. Ethnocentric claptrap, of course. We just resent that you can prosper by avoiding wars; wimps win. Remember that old Orson Welles line: “They had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Well, yesterday's referendum in Switzerland shows how wrong we are with all our tinkling cowbell, Heidi- skipping-through-the-meadows clichés. Heidi can now collect her heroin on prescription, collect her needle from an injection parlour and take a warm shower after shooting up. And a good thing too. Although I admit only to an addiction to Toblerone, it is clear the Swiss do more than cuckoo clocks. They do extraordinary social experiments, putting into place ambitious legislation from which we have been shrinking for decades. True, the voters yesterday turned down the decriminalisation of cannabis. But look at how the motion was formulated: the dope was to be sold from controlled hash shops, banned for under-18s. “Around 600,000 Swiss citizens demonstrate that you can go to work, live a decent life and pay taxes and still consume cannabis,” said Beat Aegler, a businessman who has been lobbying for a “yes” vote. The cannabis supporters lost out but immediately came up with another suggestion - special microchipped identity cards for cannabis smokers, rationing their intake, cutting out criminal dealers.

Isn't this better than the lot of the British MS sufferer who has to struggle to find a supply of medicinal-grade cannabis, putting pressure on relatives to break the law? And isn't it good to be having a debate? Heroin-on- prescription was approved because it has been run as an experiment for years and broadly speaking it works. Addicts who have not responded to a methadone programme can turn up at clinics where they can shoot up under the supervision of a nurse. It takes some of the desperation out of addiction. Instead, heroin addicts are seen as losers - who wants to queue for a needle during their lunch break? - and the glamour has been sucked out of the drug. It has been medicalised.

There is never a clear-cut answer to the drugs question. The Swiss who voted for the heroin regime may just have been stirred by traditional Helvetian values of hygiene and public order, but at least they have been consulted and given the chance to debate the pros and cons.

Here's the lesson for the British agonising over Class B and Class A drugs: if in doubt, roll with the Swiss.

Roger Boyes