In the brilliant HBO drama, The Wire
, a Baltimore police captain, frustrated by persistent drug dealing and violence in his district, establishes a decriminalized zone for dealing and buying drugs in a two-block neighborhood of abandoned houses. The dealing zone becomes known as Hamsterdam.
For as long as it exists--for it only lasts as long as the city fathers are unaware of it--Hamsterdam successfully concentrates drug dealing and buying in the two-block area. Crime in the district is dramatically reduced and, because police supervise physical safety in the zone, deaths from overdose decline significantly. Any dealing outside Hamsterdam is dealt with harshly by the Baltimore police.
is fiction, of course. It is also the only depiction of Harm Reduction I have seen on TV. But, why does it have to be fiction?
One weekend last month there were three drug-related murders in the Tenderloin, one of which was a 16 year-old boy. In the past 13 months, there were at least six murders in the block of Ellis between Jones and Leavenworth. Tenants living in nearby supported housing are fearful to leave their rooms at night. The Tenderloin Task Force of SFPD states that there is a turf war between gangs from Oakland and Richmond over territory in the Tenderloin.
Police periodically bust dealers but they are released quickly and return to the Tenderloin. There were 61 individual dealers busted in front of the Mentone, on Ellis Street, during a one month period (!) recently. Police complain about the revolving door for drug dealers and about shuffling them around the neighborhood, never really eliminating them.
After the weekend of three murders, a coalition of 100 of so Tenderloin residents and workers marched to City Hall, stopping at each murder site, to protest the Tenderloin being used as a “containment” area for drug dealing and other criminality. The coalition calls itself TNT, The New Tenderloin.
Eliminating drugs and their buyers is highly unlikely anytime in the future, but Tenderloin residents and employees deserve to feel safe in their neighborhood. Legalization of drugs seems unlikely but decriminalizing their sale and purchase may be possible.
If life sometimes imitates art, this should be one of those times. San Francisco should consider establishing Hamsterdam in a Tenderloin parking lot. The City could lease a lot, put a covering over it to protect sellers and customers from the weather, and post armed security in the lot to prevent violence and to respond to overdoses. The lot could be operated 24/7, and all dealing—or, at least, dealing outdoors—would have to be conducted in the zone. Anyone selling drugs outside Hamsterdam would be arrested and, most important, prosecuted fully by the District Attorney.
San Francisco could go even farther to prevent harm by opening safe injection rooms in the Tenderloin, staffed by nurses. Then people who smoke or inject on the streets would have safe havens; those who injected on the streets could be cited. As necessary as competent drug treatment is, it will never eliminate drug use and its associated harms. For those who cannot, or will not, stop using illicit substances, Hamsterdam may be the safest solution available for users and neighbors.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Seth Katzman is the Director of Supportive Housing and Community Services at Conard House, Inc.