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A quarter century in the service of drug prevention

Ueli Minder – an encounter. He was a pioneer in the field of addiction and drug prevention. In 1996, after ten years with the Bernese cantonal authorities, Ueli Minder took charge of the Swiss Drug Coordination and Service Platform (KDS). Today he runs a Buddhist centre in Mongolia.

In the autumn of this year, Ueli Minder, head of the Swiss Drug Coordination and Service Platform (KDS), took leave of the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health and his life as a federal civil servant and left Switzerland with all his goods and chattels to take charge of a Buddhist centre in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. His fascination with the Far East and with the warmth and inner peace of Buddhism dates back some 30 years when he traveled to Asia as a 24-year-old student. Originally intending to work in behavioral research, Ueli Minder studied zoology, chemistry, psychology and physiology. He played an active part in the student movement of the 1960s. His travels in Asia in 1969 seem to have left an indelible impression: "Back home in Switzerland, I felt as if I were in a refrigerator. A career as a university teacher was out as far as I was concerned. But zoologists didn’t have many options in those days – almost all of them ended up working in some experimental laboratory or other. And I knew it was people I was really interested in, not animals."

"In those days nobody really knew what to do with drug-dependent people."

After qualifying as a teacher, Ueli Minder founded a home for drug addicts near Berne in 1974. "In those days nobody really knew what to do with drug-dependent people." In regular discussions with other facilities which were set up in the dependence field at this time, he sought an innovative approach to this problem. At the request of the federal authorities for alcohol prevention, he also spoke in schools and parishes on the subject of drug dependence, an educational field in which he worked full-time from 1976 on. In 1985 the call of the East become too strong for him and he spent a year traveling in India and Nepal. On his return the post of addiction officer for the Canton of Berne fell vacant and he was appointed, staying in the job for ten years. In 1996, in connection with the Global Drugs Programme, the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health (SFOPH) set up the Swiss Drug Coordination and Service Platform (KDS) to improve cooperation between federal bodies, cantons, municipalities and committees. Ueli Minder was appointed head of the organization.

After twenty years, the pragmatic practitioner of the early days was now a coordinator at the highest federal level. "I was still in contact with people who were part of the drugs scene and with others who were active in providing advice and treatment, and I very much appreciated being able to bring the two sides together. It’s a pity that many of the people who make decisions on drug policy and addiction aid have no idea what‘s going on at the grass-roots levels."

"Drug policy moved away from simply reacting to the problem and became an attempt to understand the background and address the problem pragmatically."

As someone who has experienced and helped shape drug prevention work on the front line and at all levels for a quarter of a century, how does he perceive the development and transformation of Swiss drug policy? "It has moved away from simply reacting to events and become an attempt to understand the background and address the problem pragmatically. For a long time the drug problem triggered a lot of anxiety among ordinary citizens and even many politicians. However, the past few decades have seen the emergence in Switzerland of a high level of awareness of the drug problem."

"We have to take the need for a ‘high’ seriously and we have to learn how to deal with it."

Ueli Minder is in no doubt that "we have to take the need for a ‘high’ seriously and we have to learn how to deal with it without coming to harm. Using a drug – whether it’s a glass of beer or wine or a joint – induces a change of perception or mood in us. It’s a pity that we don’t dare speak openly about it. And hardly ever about the possibilities of achieving all this without recourse to a substance."

How does Swiss drug policy compare in international terms? "Its achievements are of the first rank ", says Ueli Minder. "This is recognized by government people, and specialists are virtually unanimous on the question." One of the major achievements of the last few years has been the establishment of a network of contacts, a process that is still ongoing. Nowadays, the drug problem is being addressed in the same way as problems in any other field. According to Ueli Minder, such an approach could by no means be taken for granted even only a few years ago.

Networking now takes place between different areas of activity as well as between different political echelons. Ueli Minder: "At the beginning of the so called ‘drug wave’, it would have been unthinkable for someone in social work to call a chief of police and ask for advice. Both sides have come a long way since then."

"Helping people to rediscover what they are looking for."

Ueli Minder has been living in Ulaanbaatar since mid-October. The goal of the centre he heads is to help people in Mongolia rediscover their religious roots. It’s a huge challenge after two generations of suppression of Buddhist culture by the Communist regime: 700 monasteries were destroyed and thousands of monks and nuns driven out or killed. The collapse of Communism created a vacuum which is attracting numerous missionaries from Christian churches. This a great danger for a country and a people that has not yet re-established contact with its own cultural roots.




spectra Nr. 24 – Dezember 2000