Drug legalization that failed

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Paris -- PROPONENTS of decriminalizing the use of hard drugs have just been dealt a setback in the Swiss city of Zurich.

Officials there put an end this week to a seven-year experiment of allowing addicts free rein in a specified location under official surveillance.

If there was ever a country where such an operation might have been expected to succeed, it was law-abiding Switzerland. And wealthy, well-run Zurich was the Swiss city that stood the best chance of making sure a liberal drug policy worked as intended.

But as many of the city's officials now admit, the program began racing out of control almost from its inception. By the time it was finally abandoned, even most of its original champions conceded that it had evolved into a grotesque, sordid spectacle and a civic menace.

When the municipal government clamped down last week on the last outpost of the experiment, a derelict railway station, the setting bore no resemblance to the clinical, carefully supervised venture promised by the idealistic, predominantly left-wing city councilors who led the campaign in its favor in 1988.

The station had become a scene of constant violence -- there were a dozen deaths in at least eight shootings and a score of knifings during the past year -- and a headquarters for gangs seeking to peddle heroin to children in adjoining parts of the city.

The original aim had been to provide drugs, clean needles and emergency medical care to Zurich's own addicts. But in no time the city turned into a haven for thousands of users from other parts of Switzerland and foreign countries.

By the end, about half of the 3,500 addicts who came to the railway station each day to be supplied with drugs were foreigners. All of the non-Swiss are now to be deported.

It had been apparent for some time that the scheme had boomeranged. Platzpitz Park near the center of town, the first site set aside for the operation seven years ago, quickly gained worldwide notoriety as "needle park." In 1992 it was closed and the junkies steered toward the Letten rail station, away from the gaze of tourists and the foreign clients of Zurich's many banks.

Open warfare broke out between rival Lebanese and Croatian gangs disputing control of this lucrative and, for them, relatively risk-free market. Police trying to enter the area around the station occasionally faced gunfire. Police cars were attacked and overturned.

But city officials were slow to call the experiment an error and shut it down. Their reluctance had more to do with local politics than with any lingering belief that decriminalization was working.

Behind its stolid facade of Swiss-Germanic earnestness, Zurich is a curious place.

In the early 1980s, the city's reputation as a citadel of international high finance made it an irresistible target for the increasingly militant counter-culture of the time. For a while, Zurich became a battleground where young and not-so-young radicals spilled into the streets demonstrating against the banking and other big-business interests that had run the town for so long.

By the mid-'80s, left-of-center parties won control of the municipal council, joined by frightened moderates who were anxious to appease them in the interest of peace and quiet.

The liberal drug policy was more than just a social experiment: It was seen by its initiators as a symbol of their victory over the bourgeoisie.

As such, the program was allowed to continue long after it made sense.

Bernard D. Kaplan writes for the Hearst newspapers.

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