by Bob Barr
Zurich, Switzerland is a major international financial center sitting at the northern tip of its namesake lake. Beginning in 1987 and continuing until 1992, however, this beautiful Swiss city was home to “Needle Park,” an experiment in illicit drug usage that went horribly wrong, and with consequences that plagued the city for years thereafter.
Three decades after Switzerland’s heroin debacle, a new generation of “woke” mayors, prosecutors and governors in the United States is hoping to create Americanized versions of Needle Park.
Advocates of “Safe Injection Facilities,” or “SIFs,” apparently believe that drug addicts are actually being helped if they are provided with needles and other necessary drug paraphernalia and offered a safe place to “shoot up.” In this Bizarro World, facilitating drug use will lessen drug use.
History is less kind and has shown us that encouraging public use of illicit and highly addictive controlled substances such as heroin and methamphetamine is not such a good idea, especially when, as now in many major American cities, violent crime rates are on the upswing, law enforcement presence is declining and the homeless population is increasing.
Undaunted by such reality, the soon-to-be-ex-Mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, is proposing to carve out at least two areas in the Big Apple, including one in Harlem on Manhattan’s upper west side, where drug users would be permitted to openly inject drugs of their choosing without fear of arrest or harassment by public officials. This move comes on the heels of legislation signed last month by Gov. Kathy Hochul decriminalizing possession or sale of disposable hypodermic needles used by drug dealers and users.
Those who favor legalization of controlled substances such as heroin and methamphetamine, and who also support government action facilitating the use of the substances, have urged actions such as that whichNew York is now attempting going back to the 1970s. It was this so-called “harm reduction” philosophy that led to Zurich’s notorious Needle Park (which actually increased drug overdoses and HIV cases).
Democrat-run cities in the United States, including San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Philadelphia and, of course, New York, have toyed with the concept of SIFs for years, but at least to this point federal prosecutors and courts have been less than consistently sympathetic to such efforts.
For example, while a federal district court judge in Philadelphia issued an opinion in late 2019 that would have allowed a SIF known as “Safehouse” to operate in the City of Brotherly Love, early this year an appellate court panel reversed that opinion. In its ruling, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that the proposed SIF would violate the federal “crack house law,” a 1986 law making it illegal to operate a facility that engages in or facilitates the use or distribution of any controlled substance.
While that 1986 “crack house law” was passed with the strong support of then-Sen. Joe Biden, for those who now are advocating for a radical shift in public drug policy, President Biden’s Attorney General Merrick Garland is seen as a potential lifeline.
When de Blasio announced his latest free drug-use zone proposal last month, for example, he happily noted that “[w]e have a new administration in Washington” with “the kind of potential cooperation we needed.”
Using public money to establish and maintain areas or facilities where drug users are provided a safe haven to inject themselves with substances such as heroin remains a dream actively pursued by de Blasio and his leftist colleagues in other “deep blue” cities.
Many of these drug zone advocates view the establishment of such areas as the logical next step to the Obama administration’s policy of not prosecuting the vast majority marijuana-related offenses. This hardly is or should be the case.
Using public money to facilitate illicit drug usage has never reduced harm to individuals or to society, and the appalling results of such efforts are well-documented. Sadly, however, our country’s new cadre of woke political officials appear bent on ignoring that history as they rush to go down the same, needle-strewn path that caused great harm to Zurich three decades ago.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He served as the United States Attorney in Atlanta from 1986 to 1990 and was an official with the CIA in the 1970s. He now practices law in Atlanta, Georgia and serves as head of Liberty Guard.