1. Archive

Reality invades a drug Utopia

Published Oct. 10, 2005

When complications forced the leaders of Zurich, Switzerland, to close a park set aside for drug addicts, it wasn't the first time an attempt at an enlightened approach to drug abuse failed.

With any luck, this latest flop won't set back other efforts to inject reason into the international drug debate. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that Zurich's approach was doomed from the outset.

As the New York Times reported, five years ago the city designated picturesque Platzspitz park as a sanctuary for drug users. Health workers patrolled, distributing clean needles and urging users to join treatment programs. City officials wanted to spare their neighborhoods the crime and disruption of the drug trade, while fighting AIDS and promoting rehabilitation. They reasoned that, at any given time, there would be people weak enough to succumb to drugs, and driving the drug culture underground is what causes most of the problems associated with it.

Predictably, park users grew from a few hundred in 1987 to about 20,000 when it was closed last week. It had become a magnet for drug addicts from around Switzerland and all over Europe. There was open drug dealing and increasing violence. The riverfront park was strewn with discarded needles and drug paraphernalia, graffiti and dead, urine-soaked vegetation.

There were many things wrong with the city's approach. In trying to stop short of legalization, it wound up in the business of accommodation, which is even worse. No such program can hope to work in isolation; like various locales' experience with easing requirements for public assistance, it inevitably attracts more of those who fit the category. Zurich's was an environment tailor-made for anarchy and exploitation.

But the city deserves praise for at least trying to do something more constructive than looking the other way. Some argue that anything other than a "lock 'em all up" approach only encourages addiction; hence the resistance in our own country to clean-needle programs and other minimal efforts to treat drug use as a health problem instead of a law enforcement problem.

The debate over proper drug policy will continue _ as it should, since it presents some hard choices no matter which route is chosen. But Zurich's failure shouldn't cloud that debate. What failed there wasn't enlightened thinking but Utopian thinking.