By Rebeca Marques Rocha, Youth RISE’s Communications & Advocacy

In our ongoing series, “Hear the Pioneers: Conversations with Drug Policy & Harm Reduction Veterans,” we have the privilege of engaging with experienced professionals in the field of drug policy and harm reduction. Our goal is to gather insights, experiences, and advice from these pioneers to support the work of young harm reduction and drug policy reform activists and advocates. Today, we’re in conversation with Tina Steiner, a dedicated social worker at the Drug Information Center in Zürich (DIZ), Switzerland. The city is not only known for its vibrant nightlife but also for its innovative harm reduction strategies, especially when it comes to engaging with young people.

Zürich’s Drug Information Center: innovative and sensible harm reduction services for all

The DIZ is part of the Ministry of Social Affairs and, thus, part of the public administration, which is funded by the local public funding. Tina introduces the multifaceted work the center carries, encompassing harm reduction, drug checking, social assistance, and consumption reflection counseling. The organization actively engages with young people, particularly minors, recognizing the unique challenges they face in accessing harm reduction services.

Indeed, DIZ is the only drug-checking service in Switzerland open to minors. “We realized that it is against our responsibility of harm reduction to open a Drug Checking, especially ours focusing on Cannabis, which is a substance consumed a lot by minors, and not to let them have access to it.”

Hear the Pioneers: Zürich's Approach to Youth-Centric Harm Reduction

DIZ’s Drug-Checking service in action. Source: DIZ

What is remarkable in their work is the sensible approach guiding their services. Tina sheds light on the considerable hurdle posed by the high threshold associated with traditional harm reduction practices. Requiring young individuals to hand over a portion of their substance for testing proves to be impractical, especially for those making one-time purchases. “[…] if they buy a pill for one night, of course, they won’t give even a small portion of it for a drug checking, which is very understandable. So we give harm reduction information in a different way.”

DIZ has astutely recognized this obstacle and responded by adopting alternative strategies. By focusing on outreach through street work and collaborating with youth work organizations specialized in outreach youth work, the center aims to make harm reduction more accessible to young people. The emphasis is not solely on drug checking but also on disseminating crucial harm reduction information in a manner that resonates with the youth.

Best practices for co-constructing harm reduction services with young people

DIZ’s approach goes beyond conventional methods, incorporating workshops, outreach collaborations, and even quiz nights in spaces where young people gather. “We work with other youth organizations who really have the unique goal of doing street work for young people, and we also have a strong collaboration with a queer youth organization.”

The investment in consolidating unique partnerships with proactive young individuals has proven to be successful. In a recent collaboration with a queer youth organization, they organized a Quiz Night at a local queer youth bar. The goal was to spread information on harm reduction in a fun way while opening up the space to talk about the covered topics in a low-threshold environment. “We were surprised how many people came and enjoyed the night – it was really cool!”

Such initiatives have opened doors to further collaborations with young people. Earlier, in 2023, the Drug Information Center was approached by a group of five young people who were especially worried about raising awareness among their younger friends on how to use drug-checking services. “They told us what they would need, and we supported them in what they produced,” says Tina. The group produced a flyer to hand out, spreading harm reduction information for MDMA. They also made a video of how to use a drug-checking service. “They had very specific questions, and they wanted to show this in a video, which is now on their own Instagram channel. They really wanted to show how drug checking works to make it accessible for their friends.”

Hear the Pioneers: Zürich's Approach to Youth-Centric Harm Reduction

DIZ’s outreach harm reduction in the street. Source: DIZ

Learning from Zürich’s experiences

What stood out most in our conversation was the remarkable general acceptance and openness that exists in Zürich toward the harm reduction community as a whole. “There must be quite a good foundation. We have quite a good position here because we have youth organizations. We have a drug-checking service. We also have a collaboration with other outreach workers. So these organizations, they are already existing”, says Tina. Consistent and continued support allows the organizations to clearly define the scope of their work and their target audiences. “That’s what I see is working very well here in Zürich. Services have a clear target to focus on, so they can work together instead of competing with each other”.

Moreover, the favorable environment in Zürich fosters innovation in service delivery. Indeed, DIZ implements new approaches based on the needs they assess from the ground. By doing so, the center is well-equipped to quickly respond to the ever-changing needs of people who use drugs. “We have a very wide range of things that have been implemented recently; we are trying to specifically reach marginalized groups.”

“We realized that it is against our responsibility of harm reduction to open a Drug Checking, especially ours focusing on Cannabis, which is a substance consumed a lot by minors, and not to let them have access to it.”

On top of their exemplary work with young people, the center also focuses on delivering sensible and specially tailored services for people who are working as sex workers. For this group, drug consumption can be associated with needs stemming from their work-related duties. Hence, they have other obstacles and other questions than people who don’t have to consume for their work. “This came with other questions also for us – we have to figure out what they need and what we can offer them.”

The center also establishes collaborative and close partnerships with other harm reduction providers around the city to complement each other’s work and increase service coverage. The goal is to provide diverse, easily accessible services focused on better serving different groups.

Hear the Pioneers: Zürich's Approach to Youth-Centric Harm Reduction

Harm reduction advice published on DIZ’s Instagram page. Source: DIZ

Sensible harm reduction is a collective effort

As we wrap up our conversation with Tina, it’s evident that Zürich’s Drug Information Center is setting a remarkable example in full-spectrum harm reduction. Their innovative strategies, collaborations, and a strong focus on inclusivity provide valuable insights for harm reduction advocates worldwide. I felt inspired by the experiences Tina shared. Zürich’s best practices remind us that young individuals are integral partners in designing services tailored to their needs. Their work shows us that sensible harm reduction is a collective effort based on solidarity.