A Fair Trade on Drugs

The creator of The Wire recently told U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that he'd give him another season of the HBO show for an end to the war on drugs. Sound like a deal?

A scene from HBO's "The Wire."

The Wire is possibly the greatest television show of all time.

It's this century's version of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace -- an apt comparison, not just from an artistic standpoint, but because just as people claim to have read the Tolstoy classic but never have, The Wire is a critical darling that has largely escaped the popular consciousness. Over the course of its five-season, 60-episode run on HBO, the show had consistently poor showings in the Nielsen ratings, faced possible cancellation and managed to garner only two Emmy nominations.

Nevertheless, fans of the David Simon and Ed Burns creation are a dedicated and borderline-obsessive group, which can't help extolling the virtues of the cop drama that broke all the rules of cop dramas. Counted among this ilk? President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

In fact, the latter recently invited three of the show's stars (Wendell Pierce, who played Det. Bunk Moreland; Sonja Sohn, who played Det. Kima Greggs; and Jim True-Frost, who played detective-turned-teacher Roland Pryzbylewski) to Washington, D.C., to help announce the Justice Department's new anti-drug public relations campaign. Holder let his feelings about the show be known, saying, "I want to speak directly to [co-creator Ed] Burns and Mr. Simon: Do another season of The Wire. This is a series that deserves a movie. I want another season or I want a movie. I have a lot of power, Mr. Burns and Mr. Simon."

In an email response to the attorney general's stern demand sent to the Times of London, Simon made a counteroffer, saying, "We are prepared to go to work on Season 6 of The Wire if the Department of Justice is equally ready to reconsider and address its continuing prosecution of our misguided, destructive and dehumanizing drug prohibition."

Seems like a fair trade.

By every measure of every indicator, the war on drugs has failed. In the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander writes that approximately 500,000 people are in prison or jail for drug offenses today, as opposed to 41,100 in 1980 -- a 1,100 percent increase. More than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the war on drugs began more than 30 years ago, most of whom have no history of violence or sales in large quantities.

Instead of targeting "kingpins," the war has affected low-level dealers and users, mainly black men, and has swelled the ranks of the prison-industrial complex to untenable numbers. Rights have been eroded, and, as Alexander also points out, "Few legal rules meaningfully constrain the police in the war on drugs," making arrests (and often harassment) easier in the name of protection. The low-income communities that have been the target of this failed policy have not been made more safe; rather, they've been turned into war zones.

According to the report: "Political leaders and public figures should have the courage to articulate publicly what many of them acknowledge privately: that the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that repressive strategies will not solve the drug problem, and that the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won." The panel also suggested that America "abandon anti-crime approaches to drug policy and adopt strategies rooted in healthcare and human rights."

This is exactly the message The Wire was trying to convey to the public, albeit in a more dramatic and entertaining fashion. Sure, the subplots and relationships were intriguing, and who didn't love to see Omar run up on the local dealers and take them for everything they were worth?