Does Europe hold a key to America's drug problem? International summit in Baltimore will examine substance abuse as public health issue

November 15, 1993|By Sandy Banisky and Dan Fesperman | Sandy Banisky and Dan Fesperman,Staff Writers

In Amsterdam, customers buy marijuana in coffeehouses, and police hand addicts clean needles. In Rotterdam, drug users shoot up in a small downtown square, with police nearby. In Frankfurt, the city held speak-outs so junkies could educate the public.

With some successes and some failures, European cities have tried new approaches to the problems caused by drugs.

And Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke believes some of those policies may help American cities craft new ways to deal with its own drug issues.

"I'm looking for ideas from people around the world who have had success over time," Mr. Schmoke said. "Some strategies have a short-term effect. I'm interested in strategies that have a long-term impact."

This week, Mr. Schmoke will be the host as representatives of 43 cities in 20 countries come to Baltimore for a two-day conference on drug policy.

The session will give Mr. Schmoke a higher level of visibility as he continues his campaign to change national drug policies, so that fewer users are jailed while more are given treatment. But it convenes as rates of violent crime soar, causing many Americans to want even tougher drug laws, not more understanding of addicts.

The conference is co-sponsored by the Drug Policy Foundation, a Washington think tank that wants North and South American cities linked to others in an international network.

But can a European model work in the United States, where violence, guns and racism torment the cities? Can drug policies be transplanted from country to country?

"Not directly," Mr. Schmoke said. "But there are lessons I think we can learn. All the strategies can be adapted to different cultures."

Many drug experts, however, are skeptical about using the strategies that some other countries have experimented with.

"It's very hard to go from culture to culture," said Dr. Herbert Kleber of Columbia University's Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.

"We are very different countries in terms of violence," Dr. Kleber said."We have more shootings in a week than some of these countries have in a year. We are not a homogenous society. We have great discrepancies in income levels. To assume we can simply transplant an approach is not realistic."

Mr. Schmoke, however, thinks American cities must look to other countries for ideas. "One thing we know," the mayor said, "is that blanket prohibition [of drug use] isn't going to work."

Other American municipal leaders, such as New Haven Police Chief Nicholas Pastore, agree.

"Every jail cell should be filled with a dangerous criminal, not a drug addict," Mr. Pastore said. "The more mean-spirited we get in our approach to drugs, the more meanness you can expect from the streets of America."

For five years, Mr. Schmoke has been calling for national reforms in drug policy.

In September, a working group he assembled recommended more methadone treatment programs for the city's addicts, more training for doctors and nurses, needle exchange programs to curb the spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, new arrest policies for police officers and a continued push for changes in national policy.

This week, the mayor said, he will meet with Lee P. Brown, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

And Mr. Schmoke will send a letter to President Clinton and Vice President Gore offering Baltimore as a laboratory for an intense federal effort to provide drug treatment. The city will propose the federal government pay for enough treatment facilities to care for 10,000 more addicts.

The program, which could last up to five years, would cost as much as $30 million. Baltimore now has about 5,400 treatment slots and an estimated 35,000 intravenous drug users.

Europe favors treatment

In Europe, many government drug policies tend to stress treatment for addicts rather than prosecution.

The governments believe that some level of drug use will always exist, but that users should be given treatment instead of jail terms.

"We do not have a primarily moralistic view on drug use," said Ton Cramer, of the Dutch Ministry of Welfare, Health and Cultural Affairs. "We would all like to see an end to drug use, but we do not see it as a sin. We see it as a fact of life."

The Dutch government's official fact sheet on drug policy says: "The primary aim of the drug policy pursued in the Netherlands is the safeguarding of health."

In the Netherlands, people dealing drugs or possessing large quantities of hard drugs are given long prison sentences, according to government officials. But police don't pursue people using or selling small amounts of "soft drugs," such as marijuana.

So coffeehouses sell marijuana -- though they cannot advertise, cannot sell hard drugs and cannot sell to minors. Coffeehouses that create public disturbances -- even traffic or parking problems -- can be shut down.

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