Pubdate: Sat, 24 Feb 2001
Source: Charlotte Creative Loafing (NC)
Copyright: 2001 Creative Loafing Charlotte, Inc.
Contact:  P.O. Box 241988 Charlotte, NC 28224-1988
Fax: (704) 522-8088
Author: Jerry Klein


On the way out of the movie theater after seeing Traffic a few weeks ago, I 
told my friend that I was depressed by the film -- a dark depiction of this 
country's decades-long "war on drugs" and the extent to which substance 
abuse permeates every segment of our society.

I was discouraged, not for the obvious reasons, but because I was afraid 
the majority of people who see it will probably miss the movie's point. 
Judging by some comments made by Charlotte's Mayor Pat McCrory recently, it 
turns out those fears were on the mark. What's even more interesting, 
though, is that the city's Chief of Police, Darrel Stephens, got it right.

Traffic is a starkly realistic portrayal of the whole drug scene, from 
start to finish. People who live in squalor in other parts of the world 
produce the stuff, because it's their best, often their only, shot at 
making enough money to raise their pitiful standard of living. The thugs 
who distribute it have enough cash lying around to co-opt even the most 
dedicated law enforcement officials. People here buy and use the stuff, 
irrespective of their standing in society, for more reasons than we can 
count. And what we've been doing to confront the problem -- throwing away 
tens of billions of dollars a year, locking up hundreds of thousands of 
otherwise non-violent people -- is an exercise in abject futility.

But that's apparently lost on the Mayor -- as it still is on most 
politicians. At the end of a planning retreat earlier this month, the Mayor 
and Charlotte's City Council somehow got on the subject of drugs. You'll 
recall that there's been a lot of discussion lately about a proposal to 
crack down on what are loosely called "raves" -- all-night dance parties at 
which young people are using the currently fashionable drug Ecstasy in 
increasing numbers. The erroneous assumption -- as usual for those who 
don't get it -- is that if you lower the boom on raves, drug use will go down.

At that meeting, McCrory weighed in with this bit of wisdom, as reported by 
Lauren Markoe in the Charlotte Observer:

"I was watching that movie, Traffic, (about drugs in upper-middle-class 
homes), with a bunch of people and they said, 'that's not Charlotte,' and I 
said, 'bullcrap. . .We need to get the word out better. . .Some of the 
people buying the drugs, I don't think they're even worried about being 

And then Police Chief Stephens spoke up:

"We're not ignoring the non-street level activities. But one thing I think 
is important for the council and the community is that you're not going to 
enforce your way out of the problem. It's part of the solution, but what we 
all need to emphasize more is treatment and education."

McCrory responded, "I don't want to get back to the period when I was in 
college when there was such casual use that no one got caught."

Stephens answered, "Mayor, I don't think we ever left that period."

Right on, Chief. You get it: we will never build enough jails and prisons 
to "punish" our way out of this. And that's what people like the Mayor 
don't understand -- even when the message is put in front of their noses as 
clearly as can be done.

At the end of Traffic -- don't read this part if you haven't seen the film 
and you're afraid I'm giving away too much information -- Michael Douglas, 
who plays the part of the country's "drug czar," is sitting in a 12-step 
recovery program meeting alongside his wife and his teenage daughter, who's 
just finished telling the group the story of her downhill slide into 
addiction. The group's leader asks Douglas whether he has anything he'd 
like to say. His response, in his character as the man who's supposed to 
best know the answers for the whole country, is the central point of the 
movie: "I'm just here to listen."

"To listen," indeed. If you want to make any difference in the "drug wars," 
maybe it's time for those who make our laws to listen to those who have 
direct experience with the whole scene: the users, recovering and 
otherwise, and those on the front lines of the war. As one who falls in 
that category, I'm hoping some of you will "listen" to this:

Chief Stephens is right. As happened with Prohibition's ban on alcohol use 
in the 20s, we'll never "enforce" our way out of this. Never, never, never. 
No amount of money spent on trying to keep drugs out of the hands of people 
who want them is going to work.

What's more, every time you think you've gotten things under control, it's 
all going to start all over again, with stronger or different drugs. 
Ecstasy is the perfect example of what's coming: substances being developed 
in laboratories -- often by otherwise "legitimate" pharmaceutical companies 
- -- to make us feel better, stronger, happier, more energized, or whatever. 
Squelch one drug, and another will be in the pipeline before you can snap 
your fingers.

Why? Because humans will always look for ways to alter how we feel. Sugar 
gives us a lift, as does caffeine. Alcohol slows us down, as does 
marijuana. Prozac smooths over our rough edges; Vicodin makes the pain go 
away and lets us slip into a dreamy state of mind.

It will never end. And until you take exorbitant profits out of the 
business of supplying mood-altering substances to people who want them, the 
associated crimes won't go away. You can't "enforce" yourself out of this 
problem, which even the judges and attorneys and police and prison 
officials are finally coming to realize.

If you want to keep throwing good money after bad, more power to you. But 
if you get the point of movies like Traffic, if you understand that you 
won't learn anything until you listen to the people who know what they're 
talking about, nothing will change. Nothing.

There are only three things that will make any difference, Mr. Mayor:

1. That you learn finally that more cops and jails won't change anything.

2. That you spend the money instead in giving people the real facts about 
the substances they put in their bodies, without discrimination. If alcohol 
is legal and regulated, while it destroys way more lives than other drugs, 
then those drugs should be legal and regulated, too.

3. That when people ignore truthful advice and get themselves into trouble, 
the only thing that works is affordable treatment, on demand, in adequate 
supply to meet that demand -- which isn't the case now, in Charlotte or 
anywhere else around the country.

That's what Traffic was about. Is anybody listening?
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens