How Obama's Love For 'The Wire' Shows The War On Drugs Has Failed

by John Haltiwanger

“The Wire” is arguably one of the best television shows of all time as well as one of the most important. Set in Baltimore, MD, it's a sophisticated, poignant, disturbing and entertaining drama that chronicles the impact of the war on drugs in American society.

It tells the story of America's cities, featuring political corruption, inefficient bureaucracy, oblivious media, failing schools, unemployment, violence, excessive policing, poverty and drug addiction with no end in sight.

The show is so good that one of its biggest admirers, President Obama, just interviewed its creator, David Simon.

The president began by stating,

I'm a huge fan of 'The Wire'… I think it's one of the greatest pieces of art in the last couple of decades.

It's very telling that Obama interviewed Simon and not the other way around. In doing so, the president acknowledges the unquestionable truth “The Wire” reveals.

The war on drugs has been a catastrophic failure, and it's done far more harm than good.

As Simon explained it,

People thought they could arrest their way out of the drug problem, and they actually tried to do that. ...What drugs don't destroy, the war against them is ripping apart.

The campaign against drugs largely began under President Nixon in 1971, and was escalated by President Reagan in the 1980s.

It resulted in the militarization of American police and fostered inherently discriminatory legislation, such as mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

As a consequence, the criminal justice system in the US has disproportionately impacted minorities. Even though whites deal drugs more often than blacks, there are for more blacks in prison for drug-related offenses.

The war on drugs has led the United States to have the highest incarceration rate in the world.

America has five percent of the world's population yet holds 25 percent of ALL the world's prisoners. For a nation that prides itself on its freedoms, this is a startling and disconcerting statistic.

Around 50 percent of those imprisoned are there for drug offenses, meaning American prisons are full of non-violent offenders.

Since 1970 (Nixon's second year in office), the prison population has risen 700 percent.

All the while, addiction rates remain unchanged and overdose rates have risen exponentially. In the past three years alone, heroin overdose rates have tripled. Meanwhile, illicit drugs have grown in supply, becoming cheaper and more accessible.

As Simon stated,

Nobody incarcerates their population at this level. It's draconian and it doesn't work.

Correspondingly, the interview highlights the way in which the war on drugs is self-perpetuating.

The president said,

Part of what your show depicted is that there's a generational element to this… You've got entire generations of men being locked up. Which means entire generations of boys growing up either without a father or when they see their dad they're seeing him in prison.

And as both Obama and Simon note, the drug industry is so large it's hard to get around.

For young men without fathers or other role models, it's easy to look up to wealthy drug dealers in the neighborhood. A life of crime becomes appealing, and the vicious cycle of drug dealing, violence and imprisonment repeats itself as new generations get pulled into that world.

Simply put, while drug trafficking is certainly a problem, it's undeniable that mass incarceration is not the solution.

Obama said,

What we're doing is counterproductive… The way we treat non-violent drug crimes is problematic and from a fiscal perspective it's breaking the bank.

Indeed, the war on drugs has been a $1 trillion failure, yet it continues to rage on.

As Ellis Carver, one of the main characters on "The Wire," states,

You can't even call this sh*t a war... Wars end.

In order for the war on drugs to end, we have to address the root of the problem: the demand for drugs. If there were no demand, the drug industry would collapse.

With that said, it's unrealistic to believe we can completely eradicate the desire for drugs. After all, substances like cocaine and heroin are incredibly addictive.

Yet, if we begin to approach drugs as more of a health issue as opposed to a criminal one, we could begin to see major changes in our society. Sending drug users to prison does not rehabilitate them whatsoever. Instead of imprisoning them for drug possession, we should treat them for addiction.

In 2000, Portugal completely decriminalized drugs, adopting new policies surrounding treatment and prevention. And you know what happened? Drug abuse rates were cut in half, and overdose and HIV infection rates fell dramatically.

Concurrently, vital law enforcement resources previously used for the pursuit of non-violent drug abusers have been reallocated to combat trafficking.

Portugal has treated drugs as a health and social issue, an idea “The Wire” also explores in one of its most audacious episodes, “Hamsterdam.” In the episode, police set up several drug-tolerant zones, experimenting with the idea of decriminalization.

Many dismissed the narrative of this episode as unrealistic, but Portugal is living proof that decriminalization not only happens, it works.

Perhaps decriminalization isn't the solution for the United States; every country functions differently. But we can't deny what we've been doing hasn't worked. We have to explore alternatives and make changes.

The war on drugs has been disproportionate and unjust, and it's time for it to end. “The Wire” is a work of art that beautifully conveys this irrefutable notion. Every American should watch it.

In the meantime, check out Obama's interview with Simon:

Citations: Barack Obama talks the war on drugs with the creator of The Wire (The Washington Post), The War on Drugs Has Failed So Lets Shut it Down (Huffington Post), The rate of heroin overdose deaths has nearly tripled in just three years (Washington Post), Prison Crisis (ACLU), Thirty years of Americas drug war (PBS), Decriminalizing Possession of All Illicit Drugs (New York Times ), What The US Can Learn From Portugal About Decriminalizing Drugs (Huffington Post), The Wire reup season three episode nine is Hamsterdam realistic (The Guardian), The Failed War on Drugs Is Militarizing Law Enforcement Fueling Police Violence (Huffington Post), Rand Paul Decries Mandatory Minimum Sentences Likens War On Drugs To Jim Crow (Huffington Post), White people are more likely to deal drugs but black people are more likely to get arrested for it (The Washington Post), Nonviolent Drug Offenders Should Not Be Taking Up Prison Beds (Huffington Post), Just How Much The War On Drugs Impacts Our Overcrowded Prisons In One Chart (Huffington Post), Yet Another Study Proves The War On Drugs Is Failing (Huffington Post), Offenses (Federal Bureau of Prisons), The United States Has The Largest Prison Population In The World And Its Growing (Think Progress)