Making "Hamsterdam" an Option

Posted on August 7, 2009

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Originally published in Cato Unbound:

In season three of The Wire, the HBO series on drugs and politics in Baltimore, Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin finds a way to decrease crime in his district and “clean up the corners.” His solution? A “free zone” of abandoned rowhouses where he tells neighborhood drug dealers they can peddle their wares without consequences, as long as there’s no violence. The dealers move in to what quickly becomes known as “Hamsterdam,” crime drops in the district, and Colvin allows public health researchers into his social experiment to work with drug users. After six weeks, the police commissioner gets wind of what’s going on in the Western District and reports it to the mayor, whose first instinct is to shut it down. But then he flips through a sheaf of letters from community members thanking Colvin for cleaning up their neighborhood. He tells the police commissioner to wait, calls in a panel of advisers, and says: “A 14 percent decline in felonies citywide and I might be untouchable on this. We need to see if there’s some way to keep this thing going without calling it what it is.” His closest adviser is appalled. “This is legalizing drugs,” he says. In the end, the mayor, who is worried about his reelection prospects, decides to shut down Hamsterdam. Colvin is demoted, the drug dealers return to their corners, and the Western District reverts to business as usual.

The idea of drug legalization, or its softer counterpart, decriminalization, is a political nightmare in the United States. For most of the decades-long war on drugs, the bulk of U.S. efforts, and funds, have focused on a fight waged outside the United States: curtailing supply. Reducing demand in the United States has largely been overlooked. Yet as Jorge Casteñeda writes, U.S. drug policy in Latin America is a failure. We eradicated coca crops in Colombia, and farmers in Peru upped their coca cultivation. We made it harder to move drugs through the Caribbean and Miami, and drug cartels started moving drugs across the Mexican border. We tightened regulations on the ingredients used to make methamphetamine, and the production of meth in Mexico soared. The United States has made it harder to move drugs through Latin America, without a doubt. But the Mexican drug cartels have adapted, growing more sophisticated and expanding their networks south into Central America and north into the United States. They now have operations in over two hundred U.S. cities — the Justice Department sees them as “the biggest organized crime threat to the United States.”

Ending the grip of the drug cartels and the corruption they’ve bred throughout Mexican institutions like the police and the judiciary will take drastic measures. Curtailing supply has been a resounding failure; we must turn to controlling demand. The United States should decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs, and it should seriously consider legalization, particularly for marijuana. This legislation should simultaneously up funding for government treatment and prevention programs. Creating a nationwide version of Hamsterdam would not come without risks. But like Major Colvin, who tried everything to curb crime in his district over his decades as a Baltimore policeman, we don’t have any appealing alternatives. As the Economist wrote earlier this year, legalization is the “least bad” option. Based on evidence from places like Portugal and Amsterdam, it’s unlikely that decriminalization would substantively increase the number of drug users. Legalization is another story. While it would eliminate the livelihood of drug traffickers (and the need for violent turf battles), it’s unclear how legalization would affect drug use. But public health researchers should have the opportunity to find out. Revenues from taxation could fund this research, as well as treatment for addicts and prevention programs for youth.

Hamsterdam functioned as long as it did because felonies went down in the Western District. Any new U.S. policy of decriminalization or legalization would need to be paired with efforts to help Mexico deal with its organized crime-fueled violence. Given Mexican resistance to U.S. interference and unwillingness to allow U.S. boots on the ground, the smartest and most cost-effective way the United States could help is by controlling the flow of guns across the border. Most of the guns confiscated in Mexico come from the United States; the Mexican ambassador estimates 2,000 guns a day cross into Mexico. Drug cartels hire “straws” to purchase guns for them, and then bribe or threaten truckers to transport them across the border. The United States needs to up its inspections of southbound vehicles and tighten up the monitoring of gun sales in Arizona and Texas.

Unlike current U.S. policy, legalization and efforts to control the movement of guns to Mexico would place the United States in a more favorable position with Mexico and other countries in Latin America. The latest U.S. effort to help reduce drug trafficking and violence in Mexico and Central America, the Merida Initiative, is hardly off the ground, and it is already widely considered a failure. Its funding levels are inadequate; beyond that, most of the money the United States is giving to Mexico is for equipment, not enhancing the capability of the Mexican police and judiciary. As Shannon O’Neil points out in a recent Foreign Affairs article, the initiative focuses on supporting Mexican federal institutions, not state and local bodies. “It leaves out those on the frontlines who are most likely to face the ultimate Faustian bargain — money or death — from organized crime,” she writes.

Latin Americans have become increasingly vocal about what kind of assistance they would like from the United States. Earlier this year, three former Latin American presidents, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, published a report in which they advocated a U.S. drug policy that decreases demand and consumption and gives careful consideration to decriminalization of marijuana. “We must start by changing the status of addicts from drug buyers in the illegal market to patients cared for by the public-health system,” they wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. In late April, the Mexican legislature passed a bill that effectively decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of marijuana, heroin, and cocaine (the bill awaits the signature of President Felipe Calderón to become law). The United States vocally opposed the same legislation in 2006, pressuring President Vicente Fox not to sign it. This time, U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske says he will adopt a “wait and see” attitude on the law. Kerlikowske should follow Mexico’s lead and push for the passage of parallel legislation in the United States. Such a move would increase trust between the two countries and decrease the Mexican perception that the United States isn’t shouldering its share of the burden in the drug war. It’s time for the United States to listen to the countries that have borne the brunt of the violence associated with drug trafficking. This may be politically unpalatable, but so is a failed state across our southern border.

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