Notes From the Margins…

A Global ‘Hamsterdam’?

  • June 03, 2011
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One of the most compelling subplots in series four of HBO’s brilliant crime series  The Wire concerns the attempt by Major Howard ‘Bunny’ Colvin of the Baltimore police to implement a liberal drugs policy in the city, borrowed from the Dutch model.

Facing imminent retirement and disillusioned with a career spent in the futile and counterproductive policy of prohibition, Colvin turns a few uninhabited blocks in the city into a de facto decriminalised zone where dealers and addicts can go without fear of arrest – an area which becomes known as ‘Hamsterdam’ after Amsterdam.

The experiment works well.  The homicide rate begins to fall in the usual drug neighbourhoods.   Police spend less time chasing down local dealers and ‘corner boys’ or arresting and locking up addicts.   The presence of junkies and dealers in a controlled environment means that basic hygienic standards can be maintained and needles are not shared, and also that dosages do not lead to overdoses.

But Colvin doesn’t inform his superiors about his experiment – or the politicians who run the city.   When they find out the reaction is thunderstruck horror.   The experiment is shut down, Colvin leaves the force in disgrace,  the cops and corner boys resume their often lethal cat and mouse game and the junkies drift back into their usual haunts.

Now the Global Commission on Drug Policy has published a high-profile report declaring that ‘  The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.’  The report pulls no punches in spelling out what has become clear to many people for some time:

Vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption. Apparent victories in eliminating one source or trafficking organization are negated almost instantly by the emergence of other sources and traffickers. Repressive efforts directed at consumers impede public health measures to reduce HIV/AIDS, overdose fatalities and other harmful consequences of drug use. Government expenditures on futile supply reduction strategies and incarceration displace more cost-effective and evidence-based investments in demand and harm reduction.

Among its many eminently sensible recommendations, the report notes that

Drug policies must be based on human rights and public health principles. We should end the stigmatization and marginalization of people whouse certain drugs and those involved in the lower levels of cultivation, production and distribution,and treat people dependent on drugs as patients,not criminals.

The report cites various countries where such policies have already been implemented with some success,  such as Switzerland and Portugal.   In effect the report is recommending the implementation of a global ‘Hamsterdam’ and the reaction of many governments has been – predictably and depressingly  – as blinkered as the response of Baltimore’s politicians to Bunny Colvin’s experiment.

In the United States, the  White House “drug tsar” Richard Gil Kerlikowske has rejected these recommendations on the grounds that ‘making drugs more available will make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe’.

Kerlikowske ignores any suggestion that the policies of incarceration, prohibition and repression may also have made many American communities unhealthy and unsafe – to say nothing of the disastrous impact of the ‘war on drugs’ outside the United States.

In Mexico, where nearly 40,000 people have been killed in three years of warfare between rival drug gangs,  a government spokesman has noted that ‘legalisation won’t stop organised crime, nor its rivalries and violence.’   Perhaps not. Decriminalisation isn’t a panacea for everything, but the current policies are such a catastrophic failure that any alternatives are worth considering.

One politician who once considered them was David Cameron, in a  Parliamentary debate on December 5th 2002, in which he declared ‘I ask the Government not to return to retribution and war on drugs. That has been tried, and we all know that it does not work.’

But Cameron was in opposition then.     Yesterday the campaigning group Release published an open letter to Cameron calling for a reform of British drug laws.   Signed by celebrities, MPs, former police chiefs and assorted Lords and Ladies, the letter noted among other things that

In the last year alone nearly 80,000 people in the UK were found guilty or cautioned for  possession of an illegal drug – most were young, black or poor. This policy is costly for taxpayers  and damaging for communities. Criminalising people who use drugs leads to greater social  exclusion and stigmatisation making it much more difficult for them to gain employment  and to play a productive role in society. It creates a society full of wasted resources.

In response a Home Office spokesman   insisted that ‘the government had no intention of liberalising drugs.’  The spokesman added that ‘  Drugs are illegal because they are harmful – they destroy lives and cause untold misery to families and communities.’

Alcohol is also ‘harmful’ – but legal, and no government is considering banning it.   The last time that was tried it made Al Capone rich and it didn’t stop people drinking.

More than half a century of drug prohibitions haven’t stopped people smoking, snorting or shooting up.   But they have made vast sums of  money for Afghan warlords and the Pakistani military, for Triads, Mafias, narcotrafficantes, and the Nicaraguan Contras – large sums of which are now sloshing happily through the international financial system.

Time to try something else, you might think, and the rejectionist response from so many governments is further evidence that too many politicians don’t think at all – or like Major Bunny Colvin’s superiors, are simply too cowardly to change policies whose failure is often apparent even to themselves.





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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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