Monday, February 22, 2010

The Swiss Experiment

originally published December 8, 2008

The little blurb tucked away on page 10 of the December 1st Baltimore Sun screamed at me like a front page headline: “Swiss heroin program made permanent.”

So the Swiss had the guts to try something different about the problem of drug addiction. First they tried an experimental program for drug addicts who have failed in other therapies by dispensing government-controlled doses. Then, apparently, the Swiss evaluated the results and decided to make the program permanent.

I have been in law enforcement most of my professional life, first as a Coast Guard officer and then as a prosecutor in Baltimore City. The Coast Guard could only interdict a small fraction of smuggled drugs. The “war on drugs” waged at the criminal justice level—police, courts and prisons—has failed. Everyone in the system knows it.

But because the only alternative presented to us—“legalization”—is anathema to so many, we continue to waste criminal justice resources on what doesn’t work. We may also be contributing to the disparate views that blacks and whites have of the criminal process, as the “war” is waged primarily in black communities.

I myself have wrestled with the idea of legalizing drugs, and it’s been hard to picture. But someone has taken a bold first step towards changing the status quo. And I am not sure the Swiss have “legalized” heroin so much as they have created a legal heroin program for addicts. There’s a huge difference.

In this blog I have come down hard on the city’s criminal justice system for failing to properly focus upon the city’s violent criminals, many of whom are engaged in the drug trade. I will continue to advocate for tougher, focused handling of those individuals.

But we also have to change the street dynamics. From the Sun’s brief report it appears that the Swiss have reduced crime and improved the “health and daily lives of addicts.” Improving the lives of addicts means improving the communities in which they live, as well as the lives of the children they are raising. And, possibly, it reduces demand for drug-dealers, the ones who shoot and kill each other and so many innocent bystanders.

Instead of city leaders taking expensive junkets to foreign countries for dubious economic reasons, how about they address the city’s pernicious drug problem by sending a group of experts—health, legal and social--to Switzerland to check out what they are doing? Let them examine what seems to be working, why it is working, and what might need to be adapted for conditions here in Baltimore. Let them come up with a plan—an experiment. Not the wholesale legalization of drugs, but a controlled attempt to handle addicts differently than we do now.

Present the plan to the citizens of Baltimore and let them decide if they want to try it. If they say yes, ask the State of Maryland and the U.S. government to let the city run its experiment. It would be in their interest, too, to see what happens. Then carefully measure the results.

I doubt it could lead to worse conditions than we have now. But I can see the beginning of a new discussion based on experience and facts, not on fear and conjecture. That’s the only way to move beyond our failed, stagnant policies.

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