"It's a disaster . . . I saw whole families infected with AIDS . . . I saw children, 12-year-olds, shooting up . . . I saw 16-year-old women prostituting to get money for their drug habit."
With those words, Dr. Neil Solomon voiced his reaction to the infamous "Needle Park" in the center of Switzerland's largest city, Zurich. The park was created as a haven to provide drug addicts with clean needles to prevent the spread of AIDS, but has become Europe's drug supermarket and, because of that, is expected to be closed early next year.
Solomon, a physician who heads Gov. William Donald Schaefer's Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission, visited the park earlier this month.
He said he talked with government people who run "Needle Park," health officials and addicts. He also spoke with about 50 professionals -- doctors, pharmacists, lawyers -- and citizens, all of whom live nearby.
"I got my information firsthand," Solomon said. "And, even though I thought the park was a terrible idea, I'm keeping an open mind about a needle-exchange program in Baltimore."
He wanted to research the park, he said, because Baltimore-area citizens have asked the commission to look into the controversial needle-exchange issue.
"And, beyond that, the commission itself is interested in looking at an experimental needle-exchange program for Baltimore, first proposed 2 1/2 years ago by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to curb the spread of AIDS in the inner city," Solomon said.
Across the nation, many public health experts say distribution of clean needles to drug addicts is one of the few promising options in the bleak battle against AIDS. A dozen cities in the United States have needle-exchange programs, and some have reported success in holding down the spread of AIDS among addicts and getting them into drug treatment.
But debate over the public policy continues to be stalemated over the propriety of giving out clean needles to stem the spread of HIV disease.
The Schmoke plan would have been monitored and evaluated by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. But the proposal ran into legal difficulties and was unable to satisfy the concerns of some city officials and state legislators.
"The mayor, however, has not completely given up on the idea," Clint Coleman, his spokesman, said this week.
Solomon said he has prepared a special report for Schaefer on "Needle Park."
It's illegal to abuse drugs in Switzerland, except in the "Platspitz" Park in the heart of Zurich, where the government has embarked on what is referred to as a "social experiment."
"If you go to this huge, beautiful park near the railroad station, you can buy and use drugs and the police can't touch you," Solomon explained. "You can get free needles, free condoms and there are some medical people who help and counsel you. And, they also take the dead bodies out. People die there all the time -- from overdose."
The professionals told him that they originally supported the concept but now feel "Needle Park" is a dismal failure and most people want to see it shut down, said Solomon, a former state health secretary.
"The reason it's a bad idea there -- and I think the same argument could flow here -- is that lots of children who never were on drugs before came into the park and figured, 'If it's OK to get free needles, then it's not all that bad and I will try it. After all, I'm not going to get AIDS.' "
Asked if he is for or against a carefully monitored needle-exchange program in Baltimore, Solomon said, "I'm keeping an open mind on this. I'm not an expert in this field. We have to hear from the experts. And, I personally want to know what's happening with other clean-needle-exchange programs in the country."
For the past year, New Haven, Conn., has operated a city-and-state-sponsored program that is seen as a model in the nation. Vans visit areas where drug users congregate, offering AIDS prevention and drug treatment programs as well as nee
A Yale University study on New Haven's program reports a 33 percent reduction in the spread of AIDS. Also, about a quarter of the addicts in the program have asked for help and more than 100 have been placed in treatment.
A new needle program was approved in New York City last week by Mayor David N. Dinkins.
And, in Portland, Ore., a needle-exchange program is being credited with keeping the AIDS rate among that city's 10,000 intravenous drug users at 4 percent, compared with 25 percent in Baltimore and 60 percent in New York City.