International Drug Policy

Drawing on experience, Switzerland belongs to the countries that are promoting approaches to public health, and that place the human dimension firmly at the centre of national and international drug policies.

Adress of federal Councillor Alain Berset at the General debate of the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the world drug problem (UNGASS), New York (USA), 19th of April 2016

The global drug problem

One person in 20 worldwide uses illegal drugs – that is a total of 247 million people (UNODC 2016), 29 million of whom have drug-related health problems. The prevalence of HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis is significantly greater in this population. The drugs most widely used throughout the world are cannabis and amphetamines. Opiates are consumed less commonly but cause serious damage to health. Upstream production and supply are controlled by an illegal, Mafia-dominated industry. This criminality leads to civil war, particularly in the producing regions in South America and Afghanistan.

International institutional architecture

The transnational and criminal nature of illegal drugs calls for concerted international action. Several institutions are hosting and supporting this dialogue, including :

  • the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which addresses the global drug issue within the wider context of other security and public health issues;
  • the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), the central drug policy-making body within the United Nations system for controlling drugs;
  • the World Health Organization (WHO), which addresses the global health aspects of the drug problem;
  • the Pompidou Group, which is integrated into the Council of Europe and participates in the development of drug policies in its member states.
  • the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) is a specialized EU agency, located in Lisbon, Portugal. It collects and analyses data as well as facts regarding drugs and drug addiction. The Center offers the information to the Community and the policymakers in Member States and associated countries.
Unterzeichnung EMCDDA
Pascal Strupler, director of the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health, and Alexis Goosdeel, director of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, sign Working Arrangement.

The diverse responses to the drug problem

The States, which are the players within these institutions, are currently struggling to reach a consensus on how to respond to illegal drugs. States policies are situated on a continuous line ranging from those that give priority to abstinence, prohibition and repression to those that view the drug problem primarily as a public health issue, and are concerned about the human rights of drug-addicted people.

A growing number of countries with Switzerland as a pioneer among them, have recognised that this historical model is not working, and have been turning away from it. In fact, this latter approach encourages illegal drug activities, creating health problems and social exclusion that do more harm than the drugs themselves. Despite these consequences, some States are maintaining their repressive approach and levying severe penalties, including death penalty for drug-related crimes.

Switzerland’s approach to drug policy

Switzerland is a pioneer in the field of policies focusing on public health and human rights, and has promoted them internationally since the early 1990s. Political action based on four pillars (prevention, treatment, harm reduction and law enforcement) has proven to be effective, resulting in the closure of open drug scenes and a reduction in the prevalence of HIV among users. On this basis, Switzerland, together with other countries and NGOs, advocates its approach within the international institutions. Specifically, it pursues the following:

  • By targeting interventions and promotion of its position within the international institutions, the UN and the Council of Europe, namely within the Pompidou Group, and encouraging the collaboration between these and other organisations involved, such as UNAIDS. For example, when the outcome document of the most recent Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the world drug problem (UNGASS) in April 2016 was adopted, Switzerland expressed its regret that the document did not mention the issue of the use of death penalty for drug-related crimes.

  • By welcoming foreign delegations to Switzerland in order to enable them to find out how the Swiss national four-pillar policy is implemented on the ground.

Further information

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Last modification 30.08.2018

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