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Doors Closing On Switzerland's Unique "Pub For Junkies" Experiment

Article illustrative image Partner logo The Yucca bar in Bienne

BIENNE - The end has come for the Yucca, a symbol of the openness of the Swiss city of Bienne. What started as a long-shot bet in 2001 is now slated to progressively shut down. The bar, which was designed so that drug addicts would have a “normal” cafe to go to, will close in January. This will probably put an end to any similar projects in the French-speaking part of Switzerland.

Before 2001, drug addicts would gather at "the Cardinal.” The bar owner would always let them in, recalls Eric Moser, a social worker with more than 20 years experience. But drug consumption in the bar quickly went out of control: bloodstains, fumes from drugs being cooked, and bathrooms in sub-par conditions. The bar quickly went bankrupt.

A group of good-intentioned people decided to launch the Yucca, a new bar inspired by the Cardinal, in order to keep these very specific customers off the streets. They also opened a drug injection site, "the Cactus," on the floor above the bar. This was funded by the local city council.

The Yucca's objectives were clear: to welcome everyone, drug addicts or not, to offer a full menu, including food and alcohol, at normal prices, and to open every day of the week from 7 A.M. to 10:30 P.M. Yet, shortly after it was launched, the self-funded Yucca started to lose money: "Established only 70 meters away from where the Cardinal stood, the Yucca owners thought they would keep all the bar’s customers: yuppies for breakfast, postmen on breaks, former foreign legion officers sipping their 10 glasses of Pastis (a French anise-flavored liquor) a day," recalls Moser, who now runs the Cactus. "But it couldn't continue. "The bar lost half of its turnover after relocating." 

In 2006, the place faced new revenue losses: self-funding fell to 40%. "Welfare benefits were reduced and so customers bought less beers," explains Christine Villard, manager of the bar since 2003. The seven Swiss francs meal ($7.50) was taken off the menu due to a lack of customers.

"It is also when heroin consumption shifted towards cocaine," says Mosler. "In the Yucca's early days, customers would play cards and chess, and chat." 

As cocaine was growing more popular and cheaper (a gram is only $94 today – four times less than before), drug mixes boomed in Bienne: alcohol, medical drugs (midazolam, benzodiazepine), drug substitutes (methadone), which were not only injected but smoked and snorted to explore a wide range of new sensations.

"Some people started to show up with their own beers bought at low-cost stores. I would seize the drinks and give them back when they left. Or I would simply ask them to drink outside," says Villard. "I would also make sure that small trafficking tolerated by the authorities went unnoticed, as the special police (PK) would patrol several times a day." Brawls and insults were frequent.

Playing by the rules

In 2009, Bienne’s city council unlocked new funds: 220,000 Swiss francs a year (about $230,000). The county also gave 110,000 Swiss francs ($116,000). A “peer to peer” program was launched where the best-behaved customers were asked to show the others how to obey the rules. But this proved useless. Some were sniffing drugs on the tables; others were taking drugs outside, on the neighbors’ front doors. "The new generation benefited from the new facility but no longer played by the rules. They did not care about the bar anymore," says Eric Mosler.

Problems started to spill out outside: "With cocaine, customers had lost respect for everything, they would urinate in the streets, and be loud and even aggressive towards people from the community - who no longer felt safe walking by. It was intolerable," explains Pierre-Yves Moeschler, in charge of Bienne’s health department. With its worn-down customers, its sturdy furniture and dated interior, the Yucca was not the kind of place where one would stop for a cup of coffee.

The final blow was given by a group of promoters who had just built apartments overlooking the small bar. The final straw was a 160,000 Swiss franc bill sent to the city council for damages. "Do we still need such a place? I’m not so sure. We’ll see what happens. In any case, the demand has to come from drug users," says Moeschler.

"We will see where our ex-customers spend the winter and if a new scene emerges," says Moser, whose Cactus will relocate next summer. It will then be subject to the same rules as Switzerland’s 12 other injection sites: a closed yard that is closely monitored to prevent drug trafficking and no alcohol. There will be injection rooms, as well as social and therapeutic assistance.

How do other cities cope in similar cases? The city of Wil, whose population voted against the creation of an injection site in 1996, has a social center with a cafeteria and social workers on hand every afternoon during the week. "Our concept has worked because all of our users have housing and they can use drugs in the rooms we provide when necessary," explains René Akeret, head of the center.

In Lausanne, people voted against the creation of a supervised injection site in 2007. Yet, the idea of "a social bar" has not totally died out and the left-wing city council even considered copying what was done in Bienne before giving up on the project.

Oscar Tosato, from Lausanne’s public health department, launched a new social center for homeless people, migrants and unemployed workers on November 5. It will provide social and professional assistance, as well as help for homeless people to find lodgings and a locker room. In regards to addiction, Tosato took notes of his subjects' requests and promised that a second place will be launched early next year, with professional advisors and social workers, as well as an alcohol-free cafeteria.

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