With both Colorado and Washington state moving to legalise the recreational use of marijuana in past months, numerous commentators have posited that this is the turning of the tide in the US government's long running and largely futile "War on Drugs", which began in earnest under the Nixon administration following the hedonistic excesses of the 1960s. Many argued that offering the people the chance to vote on the issue, and the legalisation passing, was a victory for not just common sense (with the vast majority of health problems supposedly stemming from consumption being debunked as little more than scaremongering), but for government coffers; by bringing marijuana above ground and taxing it, the state and federal governments would be reaping the benefits from an untapped well of potentially billions of dollars a year.
So does this assuaging of the apparently hysterical fear of drugs represent a light at the end of the tunnel for the war on drugs? Absolutely not, according to the creator of the critically acclaimed The Wire, David Simon. Rather, this legalisation is merely another front on which the government is attempting to "fight" the drug problems ravaging the inner areas of America's sprawling metropoli. Simon has long been an outspoken critic of the drug containment policies of the US government, and much of The Wire takes aim at lawmaker's total lack of understanding of the problem's roots. He points to "street-rips", or low level arrests of those in possession of narcotics, as emblematic of this trend, with police forced to contend with unrealistic quotas that they fulfil by making insignificant arrests rather than actually looking to dent the drug trade.
Simon points to the decline of American industry as responsible for the endemic, alongside the underlying racial prejudices that still affect US lawmaking. "We do not need 10-12% of our population; they've been abandoned... If we need to get rid of these people, we might as well make some money out of getting rid of them."
So do the moves in Washington and Colorado represent some progression toward a more concrete resolution? Ostensibly, yes. But looking deeper reveals yet another layer of duplicity which threatens to cut the lower class communities ravaged by drugs and drug-related arrests adrift completely. The groundswell of activism to get marijuana decriminalised was spearheaded by those who matter most to elected officials - the voting middle classes. As the strength of drugs generally has an inverse relationship with income, a blanket decriminalisation of marijuana would significantly placate the loudest of the dissenting voices, and frame the issue as one easily ignored by the majority once again.
Simon's claim that the US government's approach to the drug problem is akin to a "holocaust in slow motion" may seem sensationalist, but it's hard not to see some method to the madness; the endless cycle of arrests and rearrests with no attempt at rehabilitation, robbing communities of fathers and brothers, is a theme repeatedly touched on in The Wire. In the very first episode, one character scolds another for referring to the "war" on drugs, pointing out that "wars end".
For this "war" to end, a huge sea change is required. Simon argues that only jury nullification - the kind seen during the final throws of Prohibition in the 1920s - would send the message that a change must come, but the rhetoric and propaganda built up by successive administrations makes it doubtful that this could ever happen in earnest. Michelle Alexander's book on the topic refers to the hugely disproportionate number of African American's incarcerated under drugs laws as "the new Jim Crow" - essentially arguing that the laws are systematically designed to subjugate ethnic minorities. These biased figures are then fed into the public domain, where a collective myopia has taken hold, with a "only themselves to blame" attitude prevalent.
Whilst Simon's words may seem to some to be unnecessarily apocalyptic, the statistical backing to his claims is irrefutable. In Baltimore, the non-drug related arrest rate has fallen from 70-90% to 20-40%, with drugs-based arrests up from 5,000 to 30,000 in some areas. This not only purports the cycle, but it demonstrates how using arrest numbers as the be all and end all for judging police performance is making communities less safe; with easy targets to be found on every inner city street corner, why would police go anywhere else, and when they do that, they let other, more destructive crimes go unpunished. They, just like those trapped in the eternal return of the drug culture, cannot be blamed; they are merely pawns in a corrupt, warped game, which needs its board relaid and rules rewritten if it is to become fair.