Moving to Hamsterdam

I am, by an interesting coincidence, deep in Season 3 of The Wire, in which Colvin’s “Hamsterdam” experiment – the creation, in a stretch of abandoned homes, of an enforcement-free zone where drug sales and use are tolerated in exchange for getting the dealers out of the neighborhoods they’re destroying – is currently playing out, just as I am also seeing a growing number of headlines about powerful and murderous drug mobs on both sides of the Mexican Border. This morning, I see a story about the cocaine fueling the resurgence of the lunatic Shining Path guerillas in Peru. And, of course, there are the ongoing stories of poppy production in Afghanistan funding the Taliban – along with other stories about eradication efforts turning poor farmers against the Karzai government and the U.S. presence.

My instincts are pretty libertarian when it comes to drugs. Law enforcement has little to show for its drug-war exertions except the exertions themselves, which should be pretty disturbing to anyone with a shred of constitutional liberalism in his makeup. The deeper unstated attachment to drug prohibition – that it provides a sort of perpetual dragnet for more serious crime – is at least as disturbing.

But of course ending prohibition would have its substantial costs. The uptick in the direct effects – addiction etc. – is a matter of debate, but one thing The Wire shows pretty convincingly is that an end to drug prohibition would almost certainly lead to a huge expansion what James likes to call the pink police state. The Wire shows teams of public health types moving in to Hamsterdam to distribute needles and condoms and find as many takers for rehab as they can. What starts out as a threat to the experiment – people, inconveniently, pointing out how appalling are its tableaux – becomes the suggestion of a therapeutic utopia: The pleasure and the treatment and the policing of pleasure and treatment are all in one place, happening simultaneously. In real life, these public health types would be agents of the state. Drug legalization surely would lead to a spreading police power attached to the state’s therapeutic capacities.

Of course, some people like the idea of a therapeutic utopia. They would count the expansion of the government’s therapeutic authority as a good thing. Some people, on the other hand, would simply prefer the option in which the fewest people are killed, and the fewest people face the threat of unreasonable imprisonment, and the fewest instances occur in which violent police power is projected into the homes of innocent citizens as part of an ironically broader display of the real impotence of legitimate sovereignty in this area, and would view a concomitant expansion in the pink police state as another lamentable but perhaps tolerable cost, given the alternatives.