ZURICH Swiss voters on Sunday backed a scheme allowing heroin addicts to obtain the drug under prescription, angering conservatives who believe crime will rise as result.
Some 68 percent voted in favor of the prescription program that was already approved by parliament, making permanent an experiment that has been in place since 1994.
The referendum was instigated by the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), which wanted to overturn parliament's decision.
Advocates of the program say that allowing addicts to be prescribed heroin makes them less likely to turn to crime to pay for their habit and that the treatment can lower mortality rates.
Opponents of the scheme say it has done little to encourage users to give up heroin.
Switzerland's cities were plagued with drug problems in the 1990s, but drug-related crime has declined and addicts' health has improved due to government health plans.
"The people have confirmed that the conditions of the 90s, with open drug scenes in all towns, must belong to the past," the Social Democrats said in a statement.
The Green party also welcomed the result.
But the SVP said it was disappointed with the outcome, saying that the law failed to make abstinence its goal.
"The new legal framework will favor the drug mafia and will lead to new, open drug scenes and make the jobs of the police and justice departments even more difficult," the party said in a statement.
"Several thousand drug addicts are not capable of working anymore and live off social help and disability insurance."
Addicts have to fulfill strict criteria before being allowed to take part in the program, the Swiss Federal Council said in a document published before the referendum.
At the beginning of 2008, nearly 1,300 addicts were being prescribed heroin out of 26,000 undergoing treatment, many of whom were receiving the synthetic substitute methadone.
"Heroin-assisted treatment (HAT) is designed to help severely dependent heroin users who have fallen through the net provided by other treatment options," the Federal Department of Home Affairs said on its website.
In another referendum on Sunday, the Swiss rejected the decriminalization of cannabis, with 63 percent voting against an initiative that was supported by the Social Democrats and the Green party.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Angus MacSwan,)