In season three of the marvelous television series The Wire, Howard "Bunny" Colvin, a police major in Baltimore's western district, was under pressure from two directions. His superiors in the police hierarchy wanted the crime statistics to drop, and the residents in the western district demanded that their neighborhoods be livable and free of violence.
So he came up with a concept that was brilliant and effective, but highly flawed in context. He created a free zone for drug dealers. He chose a largely abandoned stretch of row houses, a thing not in short supply in Baltimore, called a meeting with the midlevel drug dealers, and offered them a deal. They would not be arrested if they confined their sales to the designated area. They were also allowed free passage while transporting their drugs.
The main objective of the zone was successful almost immediately. The crime rate in the surrounding neighborhoods dropped, and in the absence of fights over territory, the violence in other areas of west Baltimore dropped as well. Of course, unintended consequences set in. The area was becoming a hell on earth, and a health hazard. The children who had served as lookouts and runners for the drug dealers were left with nothing to do, which contributed to the general chaos and social decay of Hamsterdam. So Colvin negotiated with social service organizations to concetrate their efforts in that area.
When local politicians and the press got wind of the scheme it came unraveled, Colvin was forced to retire on a reduced pension, and Hamsterdam was bulldozed.
Some real life version of Hamsterdam is long overdue. The "war on drugs" is an expensive and disastrous mess. Whether our approach is complete legalization, or decriminalization, the policy needs a complete national overhaul. Criminalization of drugs has created organized crime more lucrative and on a larger scale than our disastrous experiment in the prohibition of alcoholic beverages after World War I.
The only non-hypocritical argument for our current drug policy is the self-righteous moral enterprise of punishing people for being addicted. If our genuine reason for making drugs illegal is either the increase in public safety, or the decrease in human misery. we've failed miserably.
Our drug policies certainly haven't had a positive effect on addiction rates, improved conditions in the communities where drug sales are concentrated, or increased the efficacy of drug treatment.
To give an idea of the monetary cost of the "war on drugs", one small piece of the cost is the U.S. military's involvement. In 2007 the Department of Defense offered contractors the opportunity to bid on contracts worth 15 billion dollars in total. That's 15 billion dollars from a department which is only peripherally involved in drug enforcement and interdiction.
The unintended consequences of the war on drugs are insanely expensive, corrosive, and interlocking, and affect everything from immigration (the recent rise in unaccompanied children from El Salvador and Honduras was a direct result of violent drug gang activity in those countries), to the incarceration rate of minorities.
This is insane, and needs to stop somewhere. Perhaps the best approach would be to legalize simple use and possession, and then begin licensing, taxing, and regulating producers and sellers of drugs which have an illegal market. We could then use the massive amount of money formerly spent for interdiction, arrests, and incarceration to set up effective drug treatment, education, and counseling options.
Hamsterdam may be an idea whose time has come.