Britta has been addicted to heroin for 25 years. After several unsuccessful courses of treatment, she now almost has a normal life again – thanks to diamorphine, pharmaceutically manufactured heroin, which they receive from a clinic.

Anyone who meets Britta* would never imagine that she could have anything to do with drugs. And certainly not that her life is being played out in the middle of a war over drugs policy. At first, the 42-year-old seems fairly non-descript, with her cautious smile and friendly Baden accent. After a few sentences she comes across as capable, you might even say: down-to-earth.


Britta lives in a small place in Switzerland, close to the border with Germany. She spends half an hour on the train every day commuting to Singen, where she works as a legal assistant. She was born and grew up in Singen. She loves her husband, her three cats and her horse, who helps her forget about the world.

Britta's life is normal, it seems almost conventionally middle-class – but she has had to fight hard for it. She lives in Switzerland because she would not have been able to get off heroin in  Germany. The essential treatment was only available to her over the border. Britta takes the medication diamorphine, pharmaceutically manufactured heroin, which is dispensed under a government programme.

"I am so happy", says Britta. "If it had been possible in Singen, I would have done it much earlier." Although treatment with diamorphine is possible in Germany, there are not nearly enough treatment places (see box). With just under 45,000 inhabitants, Singen is too small for a diamorphine clinic. It is probably too conservative, too: the mayor is CDU, his main competitor in the last elections was too.

When Britta took the drug that was soon to shape her life for the first time at the age of 18, it was also "an act of rebellion". Having moved out of home at the age of 17, she was living in a student commune. Her relationship with her mother, the landlady of a pub, was complicated and she saw her father only rarely. She made friends in the drugs scene and felt accepted there. "They were not stuffy. I could be the person I wanted to be and talk about things that were important to me." Initially she found the fact that drugs were part of it all frightening, then exciting. She took heroin because her boyfriend was also injecting.

Then it was too late. For twenty years, Britta's life revolved around financing and obtaining drugs. She went hooking, bought and dealt, ended up in prison. Time and again Britta tried to get off drugs, took courses of treatment, went into rehab – but then went back on heroin. Methadone treatment also failed. What happened to her is the same as many addicts: the medication does not provide a high, so the craving persisted: "I just couldn't manage without it." Diamorphine helps in these cases because it gives the patient the familiar kick when it is injected.

That's precisely why the reservations about it are so great. Is the state not turning itself into a dealer? Is society not supporting drug addiction in this way? These questions become less important when you look at individual life stories: diamorphine helps. For many, it is the last resort. What the addiction has prevented up to that point now becomes possible: an end to the pressure to get hold of drugs, an end to the health risks like HIV and hepatitis. The door back into normal everyday life is open again.

The restrictions on this type of treatment are strict: twice a day, before and after work, Britta visits a clinic to take her diamorphine. In Germany she would have to wait there for half an hour, in case there were any problems. In Switzerland, the only requirement is that she leaves the place clean.


Britta is happy to keep the two appointments: she has escaped the stress of addiction, she has got away from dealing. She definitely does not want to go back to prison: "I have cats, so I don't want to take any risk of ending up in prison." Instead she turns up for work punctually and reliably. In the evenings she can relax, watch TV with her husband or take care of her horse.

What seems normal to other people is still a luxury for Britta.

Malte Göbel

*Name changed

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