Don't decriminalize -- enforce the laws we have


WHEN I accepted the chairmanship of the Governor's Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission, I was convinced that new approaches were needed to combat the drug and alcohol problems in Maryland.

Obviously, if the old approaches had been working, we would not be confronting such a serious problem. Particularly frightening is the younger age of those involved in the distribution and sale of illegal drugs. When children not yet old enough for school are taken into custody for peddling drugs, something is very seriously wrong.

But in our frustration we must not be stampeded into unwise solutions, one of which is legalizing or "decriminalizing" narcotics. The rationale is that removing the profit motive from the sale of drugs will reduce crime. But I worry about the predictable increase in the number of people using drugs. Many will commit crimes while under the influence of drugs. Of course, one way to reduce crime is to change the definition of what constitutes a criminal act. If the sale of heroin and cocaine is legalized, crime immediately decreases. But any benefit from such a step would be more cosmetic than real.

Having recently returned from Switzerland, where I had an opportunity to view that nation's effort at handling its drug problem, I am more convinced than ever that "benign neglect" is not the answer. Platzspitz Park in Zurich, which became known as "Needle Park," had been set aside by the authorities for the use of addicts, presumably in the belief that confining drug users to one section of the city would protect the residents of other sections.

But the goal wasn't achieved. Drug-related deaths, prostitution, rape and other crimes were the rule in Needle Park, not the exception. The drug population increased, and all that was accomplished was the transformation of a century-old, once beautifully landscaped park into a cesspool.

I am particularly concerned about what I imagine must be a sizable number of people whose resolve to refrain from drugs has been bolstered by the fact that they are illegal. Particularly among young people, for whom peer pressure is a greater influence than parental or religious teachings, legalizing or decriminalizing drugs may well tip the balance between saying "No" and succumbing to the urge to "try it just once." For many of these young people, the first time, tragically, would not be the last.

Rather than relaxing or scrapping the laws we now have, we ought to enforce them more vigorously. The rule we learned in physics -- that every action has an equal and opposite reaction -- does not always apply to drug pushers today. Too many are arrested only to be released in a revolving-door system of justice. Those who violate the laws must know that they will be judged fairly -- but that they will be judged.

Citizens in Zurich learned this lesson and demanded that Needle Park be closed. Last month it did close.

I know that in the war on drugs, as in other endeavors, there can be no progress without change. But change in itself is not necessarily progress. Establishing the equivalent of a Needle Park in Maryland would not solve our drug problem any more than it did Switzerland's.

Neil Solomon, former Maryland health secretary, writes a syndicated medical advice column that appears in The Evening Sun.

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