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."