In the third season of the seminal HBO drama series “The Wire,” Baltimore police Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin allows drug dealers in his district to sell their drugs in certain safe zones without police interference in an effort to drive down crime statistics in his district. These zones, which come to be known as “Hamsterdam,” eventually grow to include public health programs and efforts to make drug use safer. However, at the end of the season, the fictional mayor of Baltimore orders the free zones to be closed down after they become a political liability. Despite the ultimately negative reaction to the creation of Hamsterdam by the mayor and Colvin’s superiors in the police department in “The Wire,” Colvin’s fictional solution provides a realistic framework for a new method of helping drug users and their communities. A newer approach, known as “harm reduction,” focuses on helping drug users survive rather than punishing them for their addictions. If implemented successfully, treating drug use as a public health issue rather than a crime that necessitates heavy policing would finally provide the government with an adequate tool to replace the unnecessarily oppressive war on drugs.
If policymakers need any more incentive to change how governments respond to drug addiction, they need only examine how current attempts at drug rehabilitation in the criminal justice system are faring. Columbia University research claims that 65 percent of incarcerated people suffer from drug addiction, which totals to about 1.5 million people. However, only 11 percent of those who suffer from drug addiction receive any kind of treatment for their respective addictions during their time in prison, meaning most will remain addicted after their release. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made the situation worse. In 2020, deaths from drug overdoses in the United States rose to over 93,000 — an increase of over 30 percent from 2019. The nature of the pandemic meant that treatment and outreach facilities, which are vital resources for drug users, could not offer the same level of service as before. One harm reduction facility in North Carolina had to close for over a year due to the pandemic, and while a massive influx of new visitors expressed their gratitude for the facility’s reopening in June 2021, the center is struggling to keep up with supplies. Clearly, state and local governments are not currently equipped with the resources or the desire necessary to change the system of drug addiction in the United States. Despite this, solutions are readily available.
Harm reduction efforts have been shown to do what their name suggests — reduce harm. These efforts can include safe consumption facilities, naloxone distribution and clean needle exchanges. San Francisco’s harm reduction program distributed at least 50,000 doses of naloxone in 2020, which helped save 4,300 people from drug overdoses. Their safe injection clinic also reduced injection-related surgery admissions by 47 percent, saving over $8 million in hospital costs, according to The Hill. Clean needle exchanges have also shown promising results in terms of disease reduction. HIV outbreaks among drug users have been curbed by the programs that allow for access to clean syringes in numerous counties in rural America. However, harm reduction must go beyond merely ensuring that people are using drugs safely. In San Antonio, a center called Haven for Hope aims to break the cycle of homelessness, a problem affecting many recovering addicts and low-income individuals, by providing short-term shelter and offering a wide range of services ranging from substance abuse and mental health treatment to education services, life-skills training and child care. In tandem with harm reduction efforts like naloxone distribution and needle exchanges, programs like Haven for Hope can provide a realistic route for former drug users to stay clean and truly become rehabilitated.
Another potential benefit of drug policy based on harm reduction is the reduction of systemic inequalities in drug enforcement. Although rates can vary somewhat for different drugs, there are similar rates of drug use among Black and white Americans. However, the legal consequences for drug use vary wildly by race. In a 2013 report by The Sentencing Project, it was found that “of the 277,000 people imprisoned nationwide for a drug offense, over half (56 percent) are African American or Latino” despite the fact that the two groups only comprise about 29 percent of the American population. During the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, surveys from the National Institute on Drug Abuse found higher rates of crack cocaine use among white Americans, but the vast majority of arrests for possession or dealing the drug were comprised of Black communities. Known as the infamous 100-to-1 ratio, Congress passed a law in 1986 which mandated the same prison sentence for possessing five grams of crack cocaine as 500 grams of powdered cocaine, which is now recognized as a highly discriminatory statute. Cutting down on drug arrests and shifting to harm prevention would begin progress toward remedying the systemic inequality present in drug law enforcement. It is important that harm reduction programs are aware of these systemic inequalities and conduct themselves accordingly. Harm prevention centers must ensure that anyone, regardless of their station in society, has access to potentially life-saving services.
In the final scene of the third season of “The Wire,” an unknowing recovering drug addict approaches Colvin as he surveys a former safe zone in West Baltimore and tells him that it was the only place he had felt safe to use drugs without being harassed by law enforcement or drug dealers. If properly implemented, harm reduction programs could have the same positive impact. It is time to listen to science that has unequivocally declared that addiction is a medical condition — one that is treatable through specific and reasonable steps. Former addicts can be reintegrated into society and move past their addiction. American governments at local, state and federal levels should apply this scientifically-backed thinking to their methods of drug enforcement.
Theodore Brita is a sophomore majoring in political science.