Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Wire As A Call For Drug Legalization

(The following continues a discussion of the now finished HBO series "The Wire" and may contain spoilers.)

As much as I may feel less politically inclined as I have in maybe ten years, I still am the lonely libertarian, so it would seem foolish not to reflect on the Wire as a vehicle for advocacy for ending the war on drugs and for drug legalization. For those of you who may not have been clear from the show, David Simon, creator and writer, explicitly came out in support of legalization after the conclusion of the show's five year run. And it's really not all that surprising. Not that the drug war is the only dysfunction portrayed by the Wire, but it is certainly an integral part. And for the poorest among us, for those born into the communities most affected, there is nothing more relevant than drugs, the drug trade, and the drug war.

To understand the Wire you have to understand that institutions have meaning and that the ideas that those institutions perpetuate have meaning as well. Drug prohibition effects law enforcement policy, politics, and the drug trade and it effects the individuals on all sides of the equation. To start with the basics, why does the illegal drug trade exist? To answer simply, because there are drug addicts, personified in the Wire by our man Bubbles. As long as there are addicts, there will be a need for drugs to feed their addiction. To get even more basic, there are people out there who want drugs and unless you can change the minds of every individual sole out of the hundreds of millions in this country, nothing is going to change the fact that people want drugs. And legal or illegal, there will always be those seeking to profit off those who want or need drugs.

So what do we do about this as a society? As the Wire shows us, the prohibition response we've attempted has been utterly and completely inadequate. The standard police response of roughing up the street dealers only hassles the street level players involved. It doesn't make neighborhoods safer and it doesn't get drugs off the streets. Even the more detailed police work of our own major crimes unit falls short from a big picture perspective. You can gut the Barksdales, but as the rise of Marlo Stanfield over the Wire's third and forth seasons shows us, there are always fresh faces willing and ready to get into the game. In short, the police are left plugging holes in a sieve, never able to do anything about the real problem.

One of the solutions, that's become more and more common place is for police to change the rules of the game. Rather than act as police, they act like an occupying army, best exemplified by the busting up of Hamsterdam in season three. Rawls watches as the troops march in, all while military music plays in the background. But the problem here is twofold. For one thing, this level of force is not sustainable, not across an entire city with anything resembling a normal police budget. So what you get instead or missions like these, occasional busts, and a militaristic mindset that convinces some officers that they are at war with the corners. More importantly, this mindset is the antithesis of community policing and is the exact wrong way to provide law an order. Not only can officers internalize this mindset, but the community at large can as well. What are young folks supposed to think when they see the police acting abusively, knocking down doors and roughing up the people they know and see on the streets. How can you tell people to come to the police for help when the police appear to be at war with your community? When taken in the context of urban poverty, what drug prohibition does is help to create an environment where the drug trade is seemingly one of the only ways out.

So why not legalization? I've made the call for it on this blog far too many times to count. Season 3 of the Wire made a similar call, in the form of Bunny Colvin's Hamsterdam project. Zone's were set up in abandoned neighborhood's throughout Colvin's district where the drug trade could be conducted freely and the police wouldn't interfere with drug dealing and drug use. It took some effort to get going, but as the project progressed, serious crime in Colvin's district declined by over 10%. Other than the drug-zoned areas, the dealers left the corners and the streets became more hospitable to the regular folk. Drug related violence declined as police were able to keep constant watch on the folks involved in the drug trade. There were some negative reactions- from the deacon who called the place hell- and from the press who never attempted to put the drug zones into any sort of context- but as a whole the project was a success. As Colvin himself put, whatever you may think about what's going on in Hamsterdam, is having that activity confined to a few square blocks really worse than having it go on all over the city?

All good things, of course, must come to an end and so did the Hamsterdam experiment once the press and the politicians got involved. Interestingly enough, Mayor Royce, who always seemed more of a career politician than anything else, seemed interested in the idea and postponed action as he and his staff worked it out. The ultimate problem was politics and the simple fact that there was no good way to spin legalization. In the end, no one cared about the crime rate, no one cared about the violence (or lack thereof), and no one even cared about what the people in the district thought about getting their neighborhood's back. Ultimately is was all about politics and the L word and the simple fact is that we have a political and media culture that can not and will not accept legalization.

I'd be curious to know if there's anyone familiar with the Wire who found the Hamsterdam project to be objectionable. I ask because there's always resistance to legalization proposals and I wonder what the supposed downside would be here. Now, obviously, Hamsterdam was only a small scale experiment that would not be indicative of full scale legalization. But given what we know about the drug trade from the Wire, what would legalization actually mean? Certainly, it'd be a difficult process, to make the change over from illegal to legal sale of drugs. What it would require is for those in the drug trade to follow and even more extreme form of the Stringer Bell/Proposition Joe plan and act like real businessmen. There's be licensing and regulation and all sorts of other hassles, but just like business in real life, there would be those willing to jump through those hoops in the hopes of making a buck. Drug dealers would have a choice of cleaning their acts up or not and the worst of them (the Greeks come to mind, with their dealing in human trafficking and stolen goods) may not even be able to join the party on the up and up. The point is, doing illegal shit costs a lot of money. Smuggling costs money, muscle costs money, and building an operation to avoid public scrutiny costs money. But to be able to sell drugs legally and out in the open, well, that has none of those costs. Legal sellers of drugs would have their contracts protected in a court of law and not have to rely on shoot outs. Legal sellers of drugs could rely on police protection. Just as there's no black market for alcohol or cigarettes, the black market for illegal drugs would dry up as the legal and cheaper alternatives emerged.

Does legalization mean allowing drug dealers to sell on every street corner or allowing junkies to shoot up in playgrounds. No and no. The images we have of illegal drugs are because they are illegal, not because of what those drugs are. Just as you can't sell alcohol on the street corner, you wouldn't be able to sell any drugs either. And just as there are rules about public drinking and public intoxication, there can be rules about public drug use. True legalization doesn't have to mean chaos and it doesn't even have to mean the controlled chaos of Hamsterdam.

Now some of you may ask, am I talking about heroin here? And yes, I'm talking about heroin. Yes it's terrible, yes it's the worst sort of drug there is out there, but that's exactly why the prohibition model is so useless. A heroin fiend is a heroin fiend and the law isn't going to change that. A heroin fiend will get his or her fix wherever they have to go to get it, be it a legal dispensary or from the shadiest of shady dealers in a back alley. Interestingly enough, the argument for prohibition is never about helping the addicts, nor is it about the people who have to live in communities heavily involved in the illegal drug trade. No, prohibition is always about new users, the people who aren't addicts yet. It's about protecting the kids, as if each and every one of us are potential addicts protected from this horror by only the thin line of prohibition. It's preposterous, but that is the essence of the argument. Even if prohibition reduced usage and reduced addiction- which I by no means will concede- there's still the question of why protecting individuals from their own choices is more important than protecting communities as a whole. Individuals have power over their own choices, but it's drug policy that helps create the environments we see in the Wire.

If the fact that drugs are illegal doesn't effect people's attitudes about drug dealing, then why would it effect their attitudes about drug use? Yet what we see in the show's forth season- a season that focussed primarily on a group of eight graders- is that the kids have no interest in using heroin despite it's availability on every corner. There's a level of measured respect if not flat out interest in the drug dealers, but no such interest in drug use. Forgetting about the law for a second, what I'm saying is that for these kids, drug dealing is culturally acceptable while drug use is not, but the path of the dealer and the user are both readily open. And these are big lessons as far as policy goes. If the cultural stigma against heroin exists without the law, than what purpose does the law serve, other than helping to create the environment of the illegal drug trade in the first place?

The Wire does an incredible job of asking difficult questions for which there aren't always good answers, but the point is that's it's important to ask these questions. As the Wire illustrates, the status quo has failed us miserably, on so many different levels, yet we have a society and a culture that continues to support the status quo, even when we're given evidence to contrary. Legalization is a drastic plan for change - If you've seen the show and find some truth in it's themes, than what else do you support?


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