Needle Park Panic at The Times

By Maia Szalavitz 08/04/11

Red-faced Gray Lady has to issue a correction after running error-laden letter attacking liberal Dutch drug laws.

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Americans love to use the example of Holland to scare those who would liberalize drug or sex-related policies. With its quasi-legal “coffee shops,” and clean needle “harm reduction” programs, the country simply terrifies those who want absolute drug prohibition. So it wasn't surprising that when a New York Times op-ed argued that the Dutch practice of letting teen lovers sleep together at their parents' houses reduces promiscuity, increases safe sex and cuts pregnancy rates, readers wrote to attack it, linking it with the "horrors" of liberal Dutch drug laws. Unfortunately, these critics tend to be as ignorant about these policies as they are about the cross-national data on teen pregnancy and drug use, which favor Holland’s approach, not ours. One letter read: "I recall seeing the social destruction wrought by the infamous Needle Park in Amsterdam and its storefront red light district as other examples of the Dutch model of 'divergent cultural ideas.'" Of course, the Times had to issue a correction: Needle Park was in Zurich, Switzerland, not Amsterdam. And how did the Swiss respond to the “social destruction” that accompanied the real Needle Park, an area in the city where users could take drugs without police interference? They did, indeed, close it when it became a magnet for dealers and disorder. But rather than “crack down,” they went even softer and began an experiment with heroin-prescribing indoors. It produced such remarkable results—improved health and reduced crime—that heroin prescriptions are now available to addicts in Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia, and will soon be expanded in the UK. If that’s a failure of liberal drug policy, we'll take it.

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Maia Szalavitz is an author and journalist working at the intersection of brain, culture and behavior.  She has reported for Time magazine online, and is the co-author, with Bruce Perry, of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered, and author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids. You can find her on Linkedin and  Twitter.