Menus Subscribe Search

‘Shooting Galleries’ Take Aim at Illicit Drug Market

• March 15, 2011 • 5:00 AM

The idea that governments can reduce both addiction and street crime — and maybe bleed black markets dry — by managing drug distribution has gained momentum.

In a late essay on the Reagan drug war, the Beat novelist William Burroughs gave a surprising statistic. Heroin was freely available by prescription in Britain in 1957, he wrote, so addicts could shoot up from a government stock of junk dispensed by the National Health Service. “There were about 500 addicts in the U.K.,” in those days, Burroughs wrote blandly, “and two narcotics officers for metropolitan London.”

When the U.K. criminalized heroin in 1971, he argued, it lapsed into “the same dreary spectrum as the USA — thousands of addicts, hundreds of drug agents, some of them on the take, a flourishing black market, addicts dying from ODs and contaminated heroin.”

His essay (“Just Say No to Drug Hysteria!”) dates from the early 1990s, just after Reagan’s sunny rhetoric about drug abstinence, but before turf wars in Mexico made America’s southern border lethal and before Afghan poppies began to fund Taliban plots against the West. If he’d lived long enough, Burroughs could have added those to his dreary spectrum of plagues.

Lately, a few British politicians have revived the idea of dispensing taxpayer-funded heroin. Spurred by successful trials in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe, the idea that governments can reduce both addiction and street crime — and maybe bleed black markets dry — by managing drug distribution has gained momentum. “It is time to replace our failed war on drugs with a strict system of legal regulation,” a British MP named Bob Ainsworth said at the end of last year. “We must take the trade away from organized criminals and hand it to the control of doctors and pharmacists.”

Dr. Peter Carter went further. The general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing said last spring that the NHS should set up public consumption rooms where addicts can walk in for a regular fix. Carter says that pilot “shooting galleries” in Britain have not only drawn addicts out of darkened stairwells and parks, they’ve reduced crime.

Trials of supervised heroin rooms by researchers at King’s College in London have shown that three-quarters of the 127 addicts involved spent far less on street drugs — from £300 (about $460) down to £50 a week, on average — and the number of crimes they committed also fell dramatically.

Similar trials by the National Health in three cities also moved users away from the street trade in heroin, and away from crime. Professor John Strang, who led the trials as head of the U.K.’s National Addiction Centre, called the results “genuinely exciting.”

Germany started a formal “heroin maintenance” program in 2009 after five years of trials that resemble those in the United Kingdom. Spain, Denmark and Holland have conducted their own trials. Most of these European experiments — along with North America’s single experiment in Vancouver and Montreal between 2005 and 2008 — were inspired by the Swiss, who have run a heroin-maintenance program through their national health system since 1994.

But people who oppose the arguments for heroin maintenance and legalization predict obvious disaster: Open the floodgates, and why wouldn’t junkies become as common as Saturday night drunks? “In the absence of controls,” wrote Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N.’s Office on Drugs and Crime, in the U.K. Guardian last fall, “it is not fanciful to imagine drug addiction, and related deaths, as high as those of tobacco and alcohol.”

The 500 addicts in 1957 are a thing of the past, after all. By 1971, when heroin became illegal, the U.K. had about 3,000 addicts — and now the number hovers around 280,000.

Harry Shapiro, the spokesman for a British nonprofit called DrugScope, which gathers data on drug policy, says the British heroin-maintenance trials were promising as models to reduce street crime, but subsidized addictions — never mind full legalization — may not be on the menu in Britain. “At the moment, we’re in a period of austerity and all the rest of it,” he told me. “Treating a person with a heroin addiction is expensive.”

Of course, even a heroin-maintenance program sounds like political suicide in the U.S. But European politics indulges in less “reefer madness” than America’s.

Bob Ainsworth, the MP, mentioned the possibility of taking the trade away from organized criminals. Maybe, he mused, European-style maintenance programs can help slay the dragon of the international drug market, since they can slash street trade in heroin.

Shapiro, however, warned against overexcitement.

“Heroin is not the only drug that people get into difficulties with,” he said. “Think about crack cocaine, amphetamines and methamphetamines. … It would take some really dramatic change in health policy to seriously undermine what is going on in the illegal drug business. So that seems pretty unlikely.”

 

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Michael Scott Moore
Michael Scott Moore was a 2006-2007 Fulbright fellow for journalism in Germany, and The Economist named his surf travelogue, "Sweetness and Blood," a book of the year in 2010. His first novel, "Too Much of Nothing," was published by Carroll & Graf in 2003, and he’s written about politics and travel for The Atlantic Monthly, Slate, the Los Angeles Times, and Spiegel Online in Berlin, where he serves as editor-at-large.

More From Michael Scott Moore

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.