A common misconception about heroin addicts is that they are the dregs of society. Not always true.

Stella D. was a witness to a street murder in Miami. This time, she couldn’t just board the train and head back to Coral Gables, the cops arrived too soon and held her for questioning. A hard-core addict for over eight years, the thirty-five year-old real estate saleswoman from the suburbs was in town for her weekly “buy” from a dealer when the nearby shooting erupted.

Neighbors and friends had no idea. Stella was a functional addict. She had nowhere to go for her drugs, but to a slimy denizen of the black market.

Europeans are catching on. They know the so-called “war on drugs” is a losing cause, which only serves to fill prisons, wreck lives and inflate law enforcement and other costs by the billions, all borne by the taxpayer.

By a margin of 68 to 32 percent, Swiss voters have approved a measure by which heroin may be legally dispensed at designated clinics to certified addicts. The experimental program actually started in 1994, and is offered in 23 centers across Switzerland. They claim it has significantly reduced crime and improved the health and daily lives of addicts.

This is a concept in which addiction is treated as a disease, and not a crime. Over a thousand addicts who unsuccessfully tried other therapies are visiting medical centers to receive the measured dose of heroin produced by a government-approved laboratory. They use equipment and clean needles to inject themselves under the supervision of a nurse, and receive counseling from psychiatrists and social workers.

The aim is to help the addicts learn how to function in society. Better to be a productive citizen than a drain on taxpayers as a prison inmate.

The negative: Addicts who choose, remain addicted.

The positive: Citizens are safer. Pushers are out of business. Addicts no longer have to steal, burglarize, maim, murder or push drugs to support their habit. Ergo, less crime victims and less drug users, while the black market goes out of business. Costs to taxpayers are drastically reduced.

Is that a no-brainer?

The era of Prohibition is a classic example of a government unsuccessful at legislating morality. By deeming alcohol illegal, bootlegging and street crimes rose to unprecedented heights while organized crime found a gold mine within the lucrative black market. Criminals gained. Citizens suffered.

Before the drug war began in the early 1970s pursuant to President Nixon’s Controlled Substances Act, drugs were not a major focus of law enforcement. I know, I was a Miami-Dade uniformed cop and later a detective in the decade of the 1960s.

I never once made a drug bust. Drug crimes were rare. It wasn’t until tougher laws were passed to combat drug possession, that the rates of crime soared, the black market blossomed and our prisons were filled to beyond capacity. Tougher laws and longer sentences did not result in less drugs in the marketplace. Today, over seven million people are under the watch of parole, probation, jails and prisons. Over 2.3 million human beings are warehoused behind bars, by far the most of any country on earth. One third of them are in for mere drug possession.

Heroin production fuels the war on terror, most of which comes from the poppy fields of Afghanistan. If the black market collapsed, so would much of the funding source for terror.

According to recent studies, at least one million users are addicted to heroin in the U.S., and two million more in Europe. More than three million Americans over the age of 12, have tried heroin at least one time.

Most start-up use can be attributed to criminal laws that fuel the black market.

Our lawmakers, and the public in general, should take notice of new strategies that work, and dispose of old strategies that don’t. We must do all we can to protect our kids and the users of drugs, but we must also protect our citizens from all crimes — violent and non-violent — associated with the illicit drug trade. If it weren’t illicit, there would be no trade.

Contrary to popular belief, studies have shown that marijuana is not a gateway drug that leads to the use of heroin and other more addictive drugs. The primary drift into hard drugs are born from environmental factors, peer pressure and an atmosphere ripe for spawning new users. With legalized dispensation of heroin, all those factors would be eliminated.

Besides Switzerland, trials in heroin treatment programs have begun in countries like Britain, Denmark, Belgium, Germany and Spain. With greater emphasis on treating addiction as an illness, and less toward creating “criminals,” drug cartels will collapse, and so will the ripple effect of associated crimes, such as murder and robbery.

And, people like Stella D. will be able to remain a functional addict, while her source of drugs can be found in safe and licensed medical facilities, where counseling and other treatments are available. Meanwhile, her street supplier will have to find a job.

What are we waiting for?