Pubdate: Sun, 01 Jul 2001
Source: Commentary (US)
Address: 165 East 56th Street, New York, NY 10022
Contact:  2001 American Jewish Committee
Fax: (212) 751-1174
Author: Ethan Nadelmann, Mark A.R. Kleiman, Samuel Rabinove, John Grant, 
Ralf Thilen, Herb Greer, and Gary Rosen
Bookmark: (Nadelmann, Ethan)
Bookmark: (Traffic)



Gary Rosen's review of Traffic surprised me, mostly because I found myself 
in basic agreement with his analysis of the movie-as a movie ["Traffic and 
the War on Drugs," April]. Where his review falls short, I believe, is in 
his commentary on the real-world drug policies and problems that are 
dramatized in Traffic. He makes three mistakes.

The first is his numerous references to a "drug-legalization movement." 
Most Americans understand the phrase "drug legalization" to mean making not 
just marijuana but heroin, cocaine, PCP, and all other drugs legally 
available in more or less the same way as alcohol, tobacco, or even coffee. 
By that definition, it is hard to discern any real movement for drug 
legalization. What does exist is a growing movement for drug-policy reform, 
composed of varying groups opposed to the excesses of the war on drugs. 
Most agree that marijuana prohibition is a costly failure that needs to 
end, but with respect to drugs like heroin and cocaine, the dominant reform 
view favors "harm reduction," which might best be defined as the 
intersection of public health and human rights with respect to drug use and 

I am not sure why Mr. Rosen makes this mistake. Perhaps it is because the 
most prominent conservative supporters of drug-policy reform-men such as 
Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Governor Gary Johnson of New 
Mexico-do advocate drug legalization. But if one chooses to "follow the 
money" donated to this cause by George Soros (the primary supporter of my 
organization) and others, or to focus on what leading reformers say and do 
day to day, then the expression "drug-legalization movement" is an 
unfortunate and misleading misnomer.

Mr. Rosen's second mistake is to assume that any relaxation of 
prohibitionist controls will result in more drug abuse. Here the evidence 
is against him. According to a recent survey by the World Health 
Organization, the incidence of marijuana use in much of Europe pales in 
comparison to that of the United States, notwithstanding the fact that 
Europe has increasingly followed the Dutch lead on decriminalization while 
U.S. policies have become ever more repressive. The Dutch claim that they 
have succeeded in making cannabis "boring." In the U.S., meanwhile, high 
school students say that marijuana is easier to obtain than alcohol.

Mr. Rosen's third mistake is to point to the apparent drop in the number of 
people who admit to having used marijuana or cocaine as significant 
evidence that U.S. drug policies have been successful. This drop occurred 
mostly during the 1980's. But in 1980 no one had ever heard of the cheap, 
smokable form of cocaine called crack or of drug-related HIV infection. By 
the 1990's, both had reached epidemic proportions in American cities. Is 
this success?

Or consider that in 1980, the federal budget for drug control was about $1 
billion, and state and local budgets perhaps two or three times that. Now 
the federal drug-control budget has ballooned to roughly $20 billion, 
two-thirds of it for law enforcement, and state and local governments spend 
even more. On any day in 1980, approximately 50,000 people were behind bars 
for violating drug laws. Now the number is approaching 500,000-more people 
than all of Europe, despite its greater population, incarcerates for 
everything. Is this success?

Government expenditures and policies on drug control need to be assessed 
according to a real bottom line. The current strategy-with its failure to 
distinguish between drug use and drug abuse, and its indifference to the 
mounting costs and negative consequences of the policies themselves-needs 
to be held accountable. If conservatives will not do it, someone needs to.

Ethan Nadelmann Executive Director The Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy 
Foundation New York City


My thanks to Gary Rosen for giving a boost to the idea of drug testing and 
sanctions for offenders on probation and parole-and for crediting the idea 
to me, as if I were its originator rather than its promoter. We agree about 
the movie Traffic: as an essay on drug policy, the film is badly confused.

But Mr. Rosen's review embraces the one error about drugs the film avoids: 
that we face a stark choice between something called "the war on drugs" and 
something called "drug legalization." That is a comfortable myth for both 
the legalizers and the warriors, but it is manifestly false. There are 
other options. It is not hard to make a list of policy reforms that, 
without changing the legal status of any drug, would greatly reduce the 
total damage done to drug users and others by drug abuse, drug dealing, and 
drug-control efforts.

In addition to "coerced abstinence" as part of probation and parole, the 
list would include: a smarter, smaller law-enforcement effort, aimed mainly 
at open-air drug markets; much more selectivity in imprisonment for drug 
dealing, focusing on dealers who use violence or employ juveniles; less 
hysteria, and more respect for the facts, in drug-prevention messages 
distributed via the mass media, the classroom, and official pronouncements; 
better, and more easily available, drug treatment; more efforts to promote 
"natural" or "spontaneous" desistance among people with drug-abuse 
disorders, including a publicity campaign like the one that did so much to 
increase the "quit rate" among smokers; and, finally, serious attention to 
the alcohol problem.

Indeed, alcohol creates more havoc-more addiction, more disease, more fetal 
damage, more family breakup, more accidents, and more crime-than all the 
illicit drugs combined. Yet practical policies to reduce that damage cannot 
even be discussed. Why, for example, do we forbid convicted drunken drivers 
to drive, but allow them to continue to drink? If a bartender may not serve 
a law-abiding twenty-year-old, how about a twenty-five-year-old drunken 
wife-beater? The average drink imposes costs on third parties of about a 
dollar; is a dime really an adequate level of taxation on it? And when are 
we going to see some anti-drunkenness ads on television?

Mr. Rosen's essay badly understates the damage done by a hypertrophied 
drug-enforcement campaign and overstates the magnitude of recent moves 
toward moderation in drug control. It also gives hawkish policies too much 
credit for hopeful trends in some drug-related statistics. To the drug-war 
hawks, improved numbers always show that tough policies are working, while 
bad trends-such as increases in teen-age marijuana use in the early 1990's 
and in heroin and methamphetamine use more recently-simply prove that we 
are not being tough enough.

Retiring the "drug war" metaphor, as Gary Rosen suggests, would represent 
progress. But metaphors are easier to change than policies, and policies 
are easier to change than patterns of thought. As long as we think of the 
problem in terms of decent, ordinary folk versus "the drug culture," we 
will continue to incur, and inflict, needless suffering.

Mark A.R. Kleiman School of Public Policy & Social Research UCLA Los 
Angeles, California


I got the same message from Traffic as Gary Rosen did: that it would be 
better to legalize drugs than to prohibit them. But unlike Mr. Rosen, I do 
not believe that "our decades-long campaign against illegal drug use has 
been less than a triumph." I believe it has been a disaster.

By turning popular drugs into contraband, prohibition causes tremendous 
inflation in their price. Drugs that cost only pennies to grow and process 
sell for hundreds of dollars on the street, amounting to countless billions 
of dollars each year. In a rational society, such a gigantic industry would 
be regulated. But the intense competition of the drug market is regulated 
only by violence. Rival dealers do not go to court with their disputes-they 
shoot it out in the streets, killing hundreds of people each year in 
drive-by shootings. The drug market now holds entire urban neighborhoods 

Of course, ending the prohibition of drugs would not be a panacea. But 
imagine the benefits of curbing the black market. Huge profits would come 
to an end, kids would not be drawn to dealing, addicts would not be pushed 
to steal, and the sea of violence and crime would subside. The government 
could divert billions, now wasted on interdiction, to education and treatment.

Samuel Rabinove White Plains, New York


Gary Rosen's commentary on Traffic was measured, and concluded with a 
positive call to drop the term "war on drugs" and all it implies from the 
nation's efforts to address its very real drug problem.

What Mr. Rosen totally fails to see is the causal connection between the 
war on drugs and the increasing dominance in American society of police, 
prosecutors, and prisons. Police departments all over the country have come 
under ever more criticism for treating anyone even associated with drugs as 
a pariah effectively beyond the pale of constitutional rights. Prosecutors, 
it has been shown, are more and more likely to violate ethical and legal 
standards by bringing maliciously selective prosecutions, using jailhouse 
snitches, and withholding exonerating evidence. And, thanks to the war on 
drugs, prisons have become a growth industry in America, looking like a 
Gulag if you are poor and black. Add all this up and the result is a 
national disaster and a burgeoning police state.

A better way lies in the movement known as "harm reduction." Under such a 
regime, a person who uses drugs yet manages to lead a responsible life-that 
is, does not become a burden on the rest of society-would not be a societal 
concern. Legal sanctions would apply only when a drug user engages in bad 
behavior, such as assault, robbery, driving while intoxicated, or being a 
public nuisance.

None of this will work, of course, unless there are serious programs 
available for people to get effective drug rehabilitation. And, yes, given 
the presence of bad behavior, attendance in such programs can and should be 
mandatory. If offenders refuse help, then lock them up.

Less moralizing and more pragmatism would go a long way toward solving the 
drug problem. Despite its limitations and Hollywood shortcomings, Traffic 
is an excellent catalyst to begin a real discussion.

John Grant Plymouth Meeting, Massachusetts


I understand Gary Rosen's worry about the legalizing of drugs. But it is 
also important to consider the well-being of the foreign countries where 
our drug habits wreak havoc. In Colombia, for example, the 
multimillion-dollar drug cartels can easily finance both left-wing 
guerillas and right-wing death squads to protect their plantations and 
laboratories, thus destabilizing that whole nation. No amount of U.S. 
military assistance will alter this situation.

We have to do away with the financial base of these criminals. The only way 
to do this is to legalize, under strict government control, the import and 
manufacture of narcotics, not only in the U.S. but wherever drug abuse is 

Ralf Thilen Parkland, Florida


The defensive tone of Gary Rosen's review puzzled me. Traffic was far 
inferior to the British television series on which it was based. The 
original Traffik (as it was called) was far more clear-eyed about drugs, 
their sources (in Southern Asia rather than Mexico), the human scum who 
trade in them, and their corrupting effects on ordinary people in the Third 
World. Moreover, it blew apart the sort of sophistry (e.g., that alcohol 
and cigarettes are the same as crack cocaine) that Traffic's director, 
Steven Soderbergh, piles into his somewhat pathetic pro-drugs homily.

There are good moral reasons for condemning the drug trade, aside from the 
objective physical and social damage it causes. The vicious exploitation of 
human weakness for money has always been outside the pale of decent 
society. To say it is now okay because these criminals-and the mortal 
frailty they exploit-cannot be wiped out is an argument that applies just 
as neatly to murder or any other crime.

Herb Greer Manchester, England

GARY ROSEN writes:

Ethan Nadelmann is the very capable, if exasperatingly disingenuous, point 
man for a movement that dare not declare its true aims. How did I make the 
"mistake" of associating him and his billionaire patron, George Soros, with 
so extremist a goal as drug legalization? Well, by casting my eyes over 
some of Mr. Nadelmann's statements on the subject, like "The Case for 
Legalization" (The Public Interest), "How to Legalize" (an interview with 
Mother Jones), "Thinking Seriously about Alternatives to Drug Prohibition" 
(Daedalus), and "Should We Legalize Drugs? History Answers Yes" (American 

Of course, all of these articles date from the late 1980's and early 
1990's; by 1995, when Mr. Nadelmann gave an interview to High Times, he had 
reconsidered his choice of words. As he told the marijuana-advocacy 
magazine, "I don't talk about legalization per se that much anymore. That 
term is so loaded."

Indeed, it is-which is why Mr. Nadelmann now speaks with such practiced 
evasiveness. I have no reason to doubt that he is against legalization when 
it is defined, as he insists on defining it, as making "not just marijuana 
but heroin, cocaine, PCP, and all other drugs legally available in more or 
less the same way as alcohol, tobacco, or even coffee." But in reality the 
term means nothing more than ending or significantly reducing the legal 
sanctions that apply to drugs-a goal that Mr. Nadelmann, despite his use of 
soothing euphemisms like drug-policy "reform" and "harm reduction," still 
very much supports. As he told the Wall Street Journal this past May, "the 
core vision" of his work for George Soros "is that people shouldn't be 
punished for what they put in their bodies, absent harm to others." Does he 
really believe that "most Americans" would not consider this an endorsement 
of drug legalization?

Truth in labeling is important. Even more important are the likely 
consequences of removing thelegal prohibitions-and with them, ultimately, 
the social taboos-that currently apply to drug use. Mr. Nadelmann assures 
us that there is no reason to worry, since the Dutch, by decriminalizing 
marijuana use, have made it "boring." Perhaps, but according to the most 
authoritative study on the subject (published in Science), they have also 
made it considerably more common: among eighteen-year-olds in the 
Netherlands, those who admitted to using the drug rose from 15 percent in 
1984 to 44 percent in 1996.

Is this-to borrow Mr. Nadelmann's refrain-success? Is this the example we 
wish to emulate? Marijuana may be easier to obtain than alcohol for some 
American high-school students, as he claims, but the real question is how 
many of them wish to obtain it. The number would surely rise dramatically 
if the use of marijuana were transformed from an illegal activity into a 
mere privilege reserved for adults.

Mr. Nadelmann decries the expense of our current drug-control regime and 
the number of Americans it has sent to prison. Samuel Rabinove, John Grant, 
and Ralf Thilen-who are more candid than Mr. Nadelmann in their advocacy of 
legalization-point to other costs: violence in our cities, malfeasance by 
overzealous police and prosecutors, devastating warfare in South America. 
There is an element of truth in these claims, as I acknowledged in my 
article, but also the usual quotient of hyperbole and hysteria. (No, Mr. 
Grant, we do not live in a "burgeoning police state"-nor, I might add, is 
it the case, as Mr. Nadelmann has outrageously suggested to interviewers, 
that drug-users are now "persecuted" and "demonized" much as Jews have been 
in the past.)

Still, any serious effort at reform must begin by recognizing that, in most 
respects, our drug-control policies have performed pretty well. The 
incidence of drug-related crime and violence has dropped considerably over 
the last decade, and the overall trend in drug use-despite a recent upward 
spurt and the arrival on the scene of various new drugs-is encouraging. 
Marijuana and cocaine consumption remain low as compared with the late 
1970's and early 1980's, and the level of heroin use has been stable. As a 
percentage of the population, half as many Americans now use an illicit 
drug as did so fifteen or twenty years ago. With other negative social 
indicators so sharply on the rise over the same period, this must be 
considered progress.

The basic premise of existing policy-the premise that Ethan Nadelmann and 
his allies find so objectionable-is that drug use should be illegal. Mark 
A.R. Kleiman and I share this premise; none of his recommended reforms, as 
he emphasizes, would involve "changing the legal status of any drug." 
Indeed, Mr. Kleiman's interesting and (for the most part) worthwhile 
suggestions assume that we will continue to impose sanctions on drug users 
and dealers and to bring public opinion forcefully to bear in discouraging 
drug consumption. It is thus clear to me why Mr. Kleiman considers Traffic 
"badly confused" as "an essay on drug policy," but less clear why he is so 
indignant about my similar reaction to it, and insists on classifying me as 
an unthinking drug "warrior" or "hawk."

Finally, Herb Greer wonders why I adopted a "defensive tone" in my review 
of Traffic. He is mistaken. My tone was not defensive but admiring-Traffic 
is a powerful, if ultimately wrongheaded, piece of film-making, and Steven 
Soderbergh richly deserved his Academy Award for directing it.
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