Unacknowledged Legislation

Last week the US attorney general met with some of the actors on classic crime drama The Wire for a public meeting about drug abuse and child protection. The AG used the occasion to demand of the writers that they make another season: ‘That’s actually at a minimum. If you don’t do a season, do a movie. We’ve done HBO movies, this is a series that deserves a movie. I want another season or I want a movie. I have a lot of power Mr Burns and Mr Simon.’

In his email response, Simon made a counteroffer. He would resurrect the great TV show on one condition:

The Attorney-General’s kind remarks are noted and appreciated. I’ve spoken to Ed Burns and we are prepared to go to work on season six of The Wire if the Department of Justice is equally ready to reconsider and address its continuing prosecution of our misguided, destructive and dehumanising drug prohibition.

[The US government’s war on drugs is] nothing more or less than a war on our underclass, succeeding only in transforming our democracy into the jailingest nation on the planet.

Everyone sane in this debate knows that legalisation is at least worth a try. It could address the battery of social and health problems associated with drug use, cut acquisitive crime in half, put a lot of very bad people out of business and generate billions in revenue to deal with the deficit and improve public services. Like the war on immigration, the war on drugs is mindless and unwinnable.

Yet public policy is a strange dance of untruth. Anyone who dares state the obvious will feel a whistling emptiness radiate from their person as establishment professionals scramble to distance themselves. Former defence secretary Bob Ainsworth was denounced by the Labour leadership for saying what so many must have been thinking. Calling for a ‘genuine and grown up debate’ about drug prohibition, Ainsworth said that:

We spend billions of pounds without preventing the wide availability of drugs. It is time to replace our failed war on drugs with a strict system of legal regulation, to make the world a safer, healthier place, especially for our children. We must take the trade away from organised criminals and hand it to the control of doctors and pharmacists… Leaving the drugs market in the hands of criminals causes huge and unnecessary harms to individuals, communities and entire countries, with the poor the hardest hit.

Thing is, Ainsworth was a Home Office minister with responsibility for drug enforcement. Why not say something at the time? Because the dance must go on. As Tom Chivers pointed out:

So this is a boring merry-go-round of political cowardice. It’s always former ministers and outgoing heads of something-or-other who call for a review of drug laws, while current incumbents of the Home Office release identikit statements claiming, on the basis of no evidence, that decriminalisation somehow ‘sends the wrong message’. It is a racing certainty that when this government leaves office, one or two ministers will break ranks and say that we should take a look at drug regulation, and hope that their successors in the post have bigger cojones than they did.

Series three of The Wire begins with a grim sense of a city sliding into hell. Murders are running at hundreds per year. District commanders take it in turns to be harangued by the big bosses in front of PowerPoints showing worse and worse crime stats. One commander, Howard Colvin, becomes disillusioned with the whole thing. A dealer attempts to sell him Class A’s as he sits at a stoplight in full uniform; later, one of his officers is shot while trying to buy a few vials in a drug sting.

Colvin’s solution is to set up ‘Hamsterdam’; an open air drug market in an uninhabited area of the Western district. He persuades the gangs to sell there, under no threat of arrest, with the result that overall crime in his district goes down. Streets that used to be gauntlets of violence and intimidation become pleasant and civilised. Colvin’s pragmatic approach is mirrored by his opposite number, the gangster Stringer Bell, a liberal intellectual trapped in the urban jungle. Violence brings police attention, and Stringer from his end tries to reform the drug trade so that it produces less bodies. ‘We’re both trying to make sense of this game,’ he tells Colvin, when they meet at a graveyard to trade information.

Hamsterdam is not paradise. Colvin’s a police officer – he doesn’t think about the health and social issues that will arise in a small space crowded with hardcore drug users. It’s telling that Bubbles, addict, informant and the show’s moral centre, visits Hamsterdam at night and doesn’t like it at all. The camera follows the gentle Bubbles as he makes his nervous way through a landscape of darkness full of capering junkies throwing shadows off oilcan fires. Defending his project to an inner city vicar, Colvin snaps, ‘Look, they no worse off when they’s all over the map. Now they just in one place, is all.’ ‘And that place is hell,’ the Deacon says back.

My point is that David Simon didn’t let his anti-prohibitionist convictions lead him into creating an unrealistic, utopian view of drug legalisation. The Wire was written mainly by novelists, Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos. Through their stories they could have the serious, nuanced debate of which politicians are not capable.

Writers aren’t diplomats or activists. They are not accountable to the public. They don’t have to juggle the demands of various community leaders and pressure groups. Because of this, the storyteller can see past short-term political gain and obligation, and speak truths that will become obvious over the centuries. If you want sense on a controversial issue, don’t listen to politicians – listen to writers.

‘Thirty years down this same sad stretch of road and the same people are still peddling the same brand of snake’s oil, still hawking that elusive light at the tunnel’s end’

Update: I was at a multi agency crime conference this week. In one of the presentations, a speaker pointed out that between a third and half of all acquisitive crime is drug related.

Time came for Q & A, and the following exchange took place:

Questioner from the floor

You may want to plead the fifth amendment on this, but I was speaking to a London drug squad officer recently and I asked what, in his opinion, would resolve the huge drug-related crime problem in London.

He told me: ‘Legalisation of drugs.’

What do you think of that?


I would prefer not to comment.

A moment of tense silence, broken by a ripple of laughter like a shower of light gravel. And the dance continued.


3 Responses to “Unacknowledged Legislation”

  1. Jenny Says:

    What do you make of the argument that The Wire’s racist?:

  2. Jenny Says:

    Eh, yeah, it’s fairly incoherent.

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