David Simon surged into the American mainstream with a bleak vision of the devastation wrought by drugs on his home town of Baltimore – The Wire, hailed by many as the greatest television drama of all time. But what keeps him there is his apocalyptic and unrelenting heresy over the failed “war on drugs”, the multibillion-dollar worldwide crusade launched by President Richard Nixon in 1971.
When Simon brought that heresy to London last week – to take part in a debate hosted by the Observer – he was inevitably asked about what reformers celebrate as recent “successes” – votes in Colorado and Washington to legalise marijuana.
“I’m against it,” Simon told his stunned audience at the Royal Institution on Thursday night. “The last thing I want to do is rationalise the easiest, the most benign end of this. The whole concept needs to be changed, the debate reframed.
“I want the thing to fall as one complete edifice. If they manage to let a few white middle-class people off the hook, that’s very dangerous. If they can find a way for white kids in middle-class suburbia to get high without them going to jail,” he continued, “and getting them to think that what they do is a million miles away from black kids taking crack, that is what politicians would do.”
If marijuana were exempted from the war on drugs, he insisted, “it’d be another 10 or 40 years of assigning people of colour to this dystopia.”
Simon joined two film directors for a discussion onstage: Eugene Jarecki, in whose movie The House I Live In – on the toll of America’s war on drugs – he features prominently, and Rachel Seifert, whose Cocaine Unwrapped charts the drug’s progress from blighted “producer” countries to the addicts in Europe and the US.
The occasion was staged by the Observer and chaired by its editor, John Mulholland, as part of its campaign to address the global drugs crisis.
Simon took no prisoners. In his vision, the war on – and the curse of – drugs are inseparable from what he called, in his book, The Death of Working Class America, the de-industrialisation and ravaging of cities that were once the engine-rooms and, in Baltimore’s case, the seaboard of an industrial superpower.
The war is about the disposal of what Simon called, in his most unforgiving but cogent term, “excess Americans”: once a labour force, but no longer of use to capitalism. He went so far as to call the war on drugs “a holocaust in slow motion”.