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The Atlanta Journal and Constitution
March 31, 1995, Friday, CONSTITUTION EDITION

Prevent Needle Park in Atlanta

Sue Rusche

Every spring, those who think we should legalize drugs hold a pot festival in Piedmont Park. Organizers of this event have advocated drug legalization since the early '70s. They claim U.S. drug policies have failed, and urge us to follow the lead of a few European cities that are experimenting with legalization. Advocates say these cities are models of successful drug policies.

In a recent Rolling Stone article titled "Toward a Sane National Drug Policy," Ethan Nadelmann and Jann Wenner said these policies "save lives, reduce disease, cut crime and contribute to safer, healthier, more livable cities."

These arguments sound persuasive. But anyone who considers them should visit Zurich, Switzerland, where a few months ago, things got so out of hand that authorities tried for a second time to slam the lid on this Pandora's box.

Zurich's flirtation with legalization began in a park that looks a lot like Piedmont Park. There, authorities allowed young people to smoke pot and use other illegal drugs. They passed out clean needles, and addicts openly injected heroin and cocaine. In a very short time, a few hundred drug users turned into thousands and the area acquired a new name: Needle Park. Young people died. Disease spread. Crime escalated. Needle Park become so unsafe, unhealthy and unlivable that officials shut it down in 1992. It remains closed today.

Rather than changing drug policies, however, Swiss authorities continued to liberalize them. Instead of disappearing, Zurich's drug scene simply shifted a few blocks north - to a place similar to Midtown's business district - and exploded. Officials estimated that between 3,000 and 5,000 addicts passed through this area daily.

Health authorities distributed 15,000 clean needles a day. Observers were overwhelmed by the sight of bright, red blood coursing down arms and legs as addicts injected drugs into festering sores. Wet cotton swabs turned pink with mopped-up blood, and discarded blue needle wrappers covered the ground. In the heart of Zurich, purple and red sores infected arms and legs, pink and blue litter infected sidewalks as heroin and cocaine infected thousands of drug-stunned addicts.

Two months ago, Zurich officials tried once again to shut down the drug scene. This time they vastly increased treatment facilities for addicts and jail cells for dealers. But their federal government continues to liberalize the nation's drug policies. In one experiment, the Swiss currently distribute free heroin to 1,000 addicts. Under such policies, it's questionable whether Zurich can close its drug scene permanently.

On May 14, Mayor Bill Campbell and National Families in Action will convene a national conference in Atlanta to make sure that what happened in Needle Park never happens in Piedmont Park - or anywhere else in America. The conference begins on Mother's Day, when the mayors of America will promise the mothers of America they'll never legalize drugs. European leaders will address the conference to tell U.S. mayors that contrary to proponents' claims, legalization is devastating.

By saying no to legalization, we say yes to comprehensive policies that bring together prevention, education, treatment, research, law enforcement and international drug control. Such policies have cut drug abuse in half since 1979. Then, 24 million Americans used drugs regularly. Today, 12 million do.

U.S. mayors will bring teams from their cities to develop strategies so that when they return home, everyone can work together to truly make our cities safer, healthier and more livable.

Sue Rusche is co-founder and executive director of National Families in Action, a national substance abuse prevention organization based in Atlanta.


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