In a recent press release, the State’s Attorney for Baltimore, Marilyn Mosby, announced the permanent adoption of a 2020 policy decriminalizing drugs, prostitution, and other minor crimes. The citizens of Baltimore are free to possess and distribute drugs, prostitute themselves, and trespass without fear of arrest. And they can also defecate in public if they get the urge.
Most minor crimes have been decriminalized in the City of Baltimore. Sound familiar? That’s because The Wire did it 17 years ago. Fans of the gritty HBO drama may remember the episode “Hamsterdam” and its focus on a brief experiment with the decriminalization of drugs and other minor crimes in Baltimore.
The Wire, one of HBO’s early ventures into big-budget television after the success of Oz and The Sopranos, is widely considered one of the greatest television series of all time. The show was a pioneer in its accurate portrayal of both police and life in urban America.
Often characterized as a “cop drama,” The Wire was much more than that. It told stories of both sides of the war on drugs with an unprecedented level of complexity and objectivity. During its season focused on political corruption, the show predicted the current experiment with legalized crime.
In season 3, episode 4, the fictionalized Baltimore Police Department creates an autonomous zone, nicknamed “Hamsterdam,” not dissimilar to Seattle’s recent experiment. In the show, sections of Baltimore are turned into open-air drug markets where police never step foot, and crime exists unimpeded.
As expected, Baltimore’s overall crime rate drops, and the police are commended. The catch? The experiment occurs without approval from the department’s top brass or the State’s Attorney, who would have vetoed the idea on the argument that it simply relegates crime to an area of the city that can be ignored — it stuffs crime in a dark closet rather than addressing problems. Now, the actual state’s attorney in Baltimore supports the idea, and the city has seen some interesting results.
The announcement comes one year after the policy was put into place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Maryland jails and prisons. After 12 months of a laxer stance against minor crimes, Baltimore is noticing some broader benefits. The city recorded a 20% decrease in violent crime and a 36% decrease in property crime. The state’s attorney also dismissed 1,423 criminal cases and quashed 1,415 warrants. The press release added that there is “no public safety value in prosecuting those minor offenses.”
In The Wire, Hamsterdam is exposed and the police pin the whole thing on a single officer. Mayor Carcetti, based loosely on Baltimore’s former Mayor Martin O’Malley, pretends to be ignorant of the experiment he privately supported in order to boost stats and his career. He gives an impassioned speech about the need to crack down on crime, reflecting the real O’Malley’s “zero-tolerance” policies. His stance mirrored the popular “stop-and-frisk” tactics of the 1990s and early 2000s, which did little to improve Baltimore and only swelled Maryland’s prison system.
While it’s too early to judge whether Baltimore is truly a safer place, the world is paying attention to the real “Hamsterdam.” Citizens of Baltimore are no strangers to politicians cherry-picking stats to support their agendas, so while the city is optimistic, it remains wary. Violent crime percentages may be down, but the city’s 75 homicides to date are almost exactly in line with last year’s rate, indicating that a drop in recorded violent crime does not necessarily mean a drop in violence.
For fans of The Wire, “Hamsterdam” stands out as one of the better moments in the show’s writing. One would hope the real-world benefits will be longer lasting.