Sunday, May 02, 2010

Legalize Drugs: The Story

In a recent post, Legalize Drugs: The Facts, I listed 20 fact based reasons why I believe the legalization of drugs would improve the lives of drug users, street level drug dealers, and everyday citizens. Facts however, are not always as convincing as we might think. Here's some research I've shared before showing that fiction books are more convincing than non-fiction books. Similarly, here is economist Tyler Cowen both praising and warning about the strong impact a convincing story can have. In line with that, here's a good fictional story about the costs and benefits of drug legalization. It's one of the subplots of The Wire, a show about the drug trade in intercity Baltimore:
Over the course of this series, police chief Bunny Colvin establishes three drugs-tolerance "free zones" in derelict areas of Baltimore, and the programme carefully and even-handedly analyses how these would work and what the eventual political, media and public reaction would be.

Quickly nicknamed Hamsterdam – a corruption of Amsterdam, "one of those countries where drugs are legal" – the experiment is successful in clearing drug dealing off residential street corners that had been blighted by the dealing and its attendant violence for years. We see peaceful corners presented like a dream or a fantasy, or a trip to the past, with neighbours hanging up their clothes, the radio trilling softly, kids rushing past to play games.
In the show, due to the isolation of the drug trade, there is a 14% drop in violent crime. That is until Major Colvin's superiors find out and raid the zones. The Wire does not present this as the solution to all the problems of the drug trade:
The free zones themselves, while largely violence-free, are shown encouraging addiction and promoting disease and prostitution. (Colvin eventually invites public-health charity workers and harm-reduction experts into Hamsterdam to deal with these problems – an impressively undramatic, realistic touch.) Young children formerly employed by dealers as look-outs are laid off, leaving them idle and in poverty. The viewer is also invited to sympathise with the one person who lives in the derelict area, an elderly woman who tells Colvin: "You say you've got a programme that can place me somewhere else, but you ain't got a programme for what's outside my door." The writers are not afraid to point out flaws in the plan.
To get a complete feel for the implementation and reaction to the free zones, here are some graphic but descriptive summary clips from The Wire, Season 3:

This is a fictional representation of what might happen, but I believe the real life results would be similar. I'll leave you with some a summary of the drug problem from The Corner, the nonfiction book in which The Wire is based on:
It criminalises swaths of society, fills prisons with non-violent offenders, facilitates the creation and enrichment of violent gangs, forces those who use drugs to use adulterated, dangerous products, brings the law into disrepute, and costs vast amounts of money that could be put to better uses.


  1. Well done. I guess I shouldn't say (as I hinted in the comments on "legalize drugs: the facts") that I completely disagree with you. I think some relaxation and restraint in the war on drugs would be helpful. I just don't support complete decriminalization. Even so, these two post have been very insightful, well-researched, and convincing.

  2. So if not legalization or decriminalization, what does "some relaxation and restraint in the war on drugs" mean for you?

  3. Well I think marijuana possession should be greatly relaxed. Possession of over 1oz is a felony in Ga, punishable to up to 10 yrs in prison (20 if it's near a school). That's absolutely ridiculous.

    So I think across the board we should lower penalties for drug crimes. I would need to research more to find out the precise moves I would support.


You are the reason why I do not write privately. I would love to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or not.