In season 3 of the HBO drama The Wire, Major Colvin effectively decriminalizes drugs in the western-district of Baltimore. Without the permission of the Baltimore city and his superior officers, he tells the police in his district not to arrest citizens who are dealing drugs or in possession of drugs within three specific areas of largely abandoned housing projects. These three zones end up with a heavy police presence, but also with impromptu and unsanctioned needle exchanges and condom dispensaries. The caveat was, as long as there was no violence in these districts, and no drug-offences were committed outside of these zones, the police would not intervene. This experiment was eventually referred to as “Hamsterdam” by both the police and those involved in the drug game.
In the Western district, this move results in a 14% drop in felony crime during the 5 weeks of Major Colvin’s experiment. Neighborhoods formerly rampant with drug dealing and violent crime become liberated due to the drug-game moving to the designated zones.
There is an abrupt swing in the relationship between the drug dealers, local unaffiliated community, and the police. This unsanctioned move is done with the temporary ignorance of his superior officers, but they applaud his 14% drop in crime, prior to learning how he achieved these numbers. Of course, when Major Colvin’s experiment is inevitably discovered, he is demoted and forced into early retirement. Everything on the street goes back to how it was prior to the “Hamsterdam” experiment.
The idea suggested throughout this season of the show is that we can win the war on drugs by ending the war on drugs. The fictional experiment in this drama is not without merit, nor separate from real world examples.
Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 2001 and began a massive public health campaign that sought to look at addiction as a health issue rather than a criminal one. It shifted the nation’s drug control from the Justice Department to the Ministry of Health, and implemented numerous methods to combat drug addiction without criminalizing the user or dealer.
Portugal’s drug policy is now viewed as a success story. Drug use had an immediate increase after decriminalization, but ever since has enormously dropped. By 2015 deaths due to drug use have plummeted, as have HIV infections in the country.1
Although this is tremendous news for this country having broad implications for the war on drugs, the story was more complex than mere decriminalization of drugs. Massive education and public health campaigns occurred. Alex Stevens, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Kent, stated that "The main lesson to learn [is] decriminalizing drugs doesn't necessarily lead to disaster, and it does free up resources for more effective responses to drug-related problems."2
This is where fiction departs from reality. As the Hamsterdam experiment is officially unsanctioned by the government and police force, there is limited opportunity to correct the root causes that lead to these individuals having turned to drug dealing and/or drug addiction. Major Colvin displaces all of the district’s most vulnerable actors in the drug game, being drug addicts and low-level drug dealers, into easily managed areas but his plan did not aim to truly help these individuals in a meaningful way.
The role of decriminalization in Portugal is minimal compared to the public health campaign undertaken simultaneously This cannot be overstated. These were necessary and complimentary facets of the program. Decriminalization set the stage for numerous benefits. Decriminalization made it far easier for the delivery of health services during this campaign. The fear of imprisonment associated with calling for medical assistance due to an overdose was removed.
The results seem to suggest that it may be cheaper to treat drug addiction as a public health concern than a criminal issue. It is reported that Portugal spends less than $10 per citizen per year treating drug addiction as a public health concern, where the United States has spent roughly $10,000 per citizen in the years fighting the war on drugs.3
One important distinction between The Wire’s “Hamsterdam” and Portugal is that there was no decriminalization of drug trafficking in Portugal. This is completely understandable; it is very difficult for the public to tolerate the free-flow of income into the hands of smugglers and gangs.
There is a reasonable argument to be made for the decriminalization of drug trafficking in North America. We are seeing a change of perspective with the legalization of marijuana. Almost all the same arguments apply, with the exception of the health risks and addiction, (or lack thereof), that applies to marijuana consumption. All the same regulatory, public safety, economic, and societal arguments can be made for the decriminalization of the sale of harder drugs. As shown in Portugal however, this will not be enough. If we really want to end the war on drugs in Canada, we must admit that the fundamental aspect of the problem is a health issue.
The federal NDP party under Jagmeet Singh has advocated the decriminalization of all drugs in Canada, but with the continuing criminalization of trafficking drugs. Without the massive public health campaign of approaches such as those undertaken in Portugal, Canada could become Hamsterdam North: a nice Band-Aid solution without the resources to fully end the war on drugs.
1 Zeeshan Aleem, Mic, “14 years After Decriminalizing All Drugs, Here’s What Portugal Looks Like,” Feb 11, 2015. < https://mic.com/articles/110344/14-years-after-portugal-decriminalized-all-drugs-here-s-what-s-happening#.haDN4v3nm >.
2 Ibid, Mic.
3 Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, “How to Win a War on Drugs,” September 22nd 2017. < https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/22/opinion/sunday/portugal-drug-decriminalization.html >