Hamsterdam: Fiction, Drugs, and other Things We’d Rather Not Acknowledge

Posted: May 10, 2016 in fiction, science fiction, television
Tags: , , ,

The Wire Season 3 does something I don’t often notice in contemporary television—it asks a question: what would happen if drugs were legalized (mostly crack cocaine in the series, I believe)? They then proceed to explore that question over an entire season. In one fell swoop, the series’ writers conjure a wonderful premise for conflict among the police and the local politicians. It starts when a jaded, near-retirement police major tries an unsanctioned experiment as a way to drop crime stats in his area. howardcolvin_croppedWithout telling his superiors, Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin (played by Robert Wisdom), establishes three free zones the civilian populace dubs “Hamsterdam,” after the capital of the Netherlands, where laws against selling and buying drugs are not enforced (but are enforced rigorously everywhere else). In the series, non-drug-related crime goes down in- and outside of Hamsterdam. Violence also goes down. Drug treatment goes up now that social services can more easily find and approach those in need.

Even though the Wired is nominally a police drama, this is exactly what I like about science fiction—answering those good, old “what if?” questions. What if robots became sentient (iRobot, etc.)? What if people became robots (Ghost in the Shell, etc.) or clones (Blade Runner)? What if robots wage war on humanity (Terminator)? What if robots save humanity (my novel, The Farthest City)? Ok, so I’m being a little robot-centric here.

In this case, the question is “What if we legalize drugs?” Extending that question, it becomes “How much should society regulate an individual if that individual isn’t hurting anyone else?” Spoiler alert!: At the end of Season 3, Hamsterdam is shut down by the police, and a dead junkie (Johnny Weeks portrayed by Leo Fitzpatrick) is found in one of the abandoned row houses. On an individual level, it’s sad (Johnny is a character we’ve gotten to know as a person). junkies_Johnny WeeksFor his fictional family, it would be sad. But ecologically, on a regional and global scale, it’s not a problem—there are far too many human beings on Earth. Ask any recently-extinct species. One short story (I can’t recall the title, but I think it appeared in Asimov’s) explored what happens when the aging process is finally halted—procreation is made illegal, despite people’s continuing need to have children.

Back to the question at hand—what if drugs were legalized? In actuality, if you consider alcohol a “drug” (which it is, scientifically speaking), it’s already been legalized in most places. Other drugs have been legalized (or at least decriminalized) by the Dutch, including marijuana (note that Wired Season 3 came out in 2004, prior to a wave of U.S. states legalizing marijuana). One effect of legalization is those activities become easier to regulate, to manage the extremes (people rarely die from contaminated liquor nowadays). Another effect is they’re taxable, and tax proceeds can be used to treat those with substance abuse problems. Perhaps another effect might be that associated crime diminishes as those markets become legal, no longer operated in the shadows by criminals. I haven’t done any research to quantify these claims, they’re just my speculation, but I love that process of inquiry and finding a story to tell in the resulting hypotheses. At its best, it’s what science fiction excels at, but which any media can exploit (as the Wire has shown IMO).

All kinds of interesting questions pop up when you look closely at society’s inconsistencies. How do these illegal activities relate to personal freedom? Why is it so difficult for society to acknowledge some ubiquitous behaviors (marijuana and crack use, prostitution) but others are okay (drinking, smoking, gambling)? Why is it legal to drink one’s self to death, but not to OD? Why is it illegal to assist someone who wishes to end their own life? Why is it illegal to have sex and get compensated for it? Do the libertarians have it right? I suspect they might, to a degree.

I’m working on a book series where suicide booths are as common as vending machines and political decisions are made through crowd-funding. I haven’t finished thinking through the implications of those ideas yet, but it’s fun just asking the questions.

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