Pubdate: Sun, 18 Mar 2001
Source: Ventura County Star (CA)
Copyright: 2001, Ventura County Star
Page: A08
Contact:  P.O. Box 6711, Ventura CA 93006
Fax: (805) 650-2950
Author: Frank Davies; Knight Ridder Newspapers
Cited: Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation
Common Sense for Drug Policy
Bookmark: (Traffic)


Box Office Hit: Politicians, Talk Show Hosts Discuss Merits, Message Of Film.

WASHINGTON -- "Traffic," a gritty, R-rated movie that was shot
partially with a hand-held camera, is having more impact on the debate
over drug policy than any public official, including President Bush.

One reason for that is the president says little about the issue,
hasn't made drug control a priority and hasn't named a drug czar.

The other reason is the movie's popularity. It's earned $97 million in
11 weeks, could win best picture at the Academy Awards next Sunday and
has jolted the often-hackneyed discussion in the nation's capital over
what to do about illegal drugs.

"Traffic" is a sprawling, ambitious look at how drugs cripple the
lives of many people: a courageous Mexican cop trying to survive
rampant corruption; U.S. drug agents struggling to stem a flood tide
of smuggling; and a drug czar, played by Michael Douglas, devastated
by his daughter's drug addiction and disillusioned by empty rhetoric.

"Right now, a movie is bringing drug issues into the forefront of the
public debate, not the president," said Manon McKinnon, a conservative
drug policy analyst who supports Bush.

"The film has moved the debate over drugs from the op-ed pages into
the popular culture," said Kevin Zeese, president of Common Sense for
Drug Policy, which opposes many current drug laws. "(Director) Stephen
Soderbergh has tapped into the public's unease about what government
is doing."

And government is responding, or at least talking about it. Critics of
the drug war say the movie exposes the futility of costly efforts to
stop smuggling. Some activists, including supporters of interdiction,
praise the film for its graphic depiction of a teen-ager in the throes
of addiction and prostitution.

In recent weeks, Washington has seen this impact:

n President Andres Pastrana of Colombia arranged a screening of
"Traffic" for members of Congress, diplomats and policy-makers.

"That was a smart thing for Pastrana to do and somewhat bold, and it
had everybody talking," said Bernard Aronson, a former assistant
secretary of state for inter-American affairs. "The movie has captured
the mood of Washington and some of the ambivalence about what to do."

At a hearing on a bill to spend $900 million more for drug
prevention and treatment, including money for community programs and
prisons, senators cited the movie as a common reference point. Patrick
Leahy, D-Vt., used a scene from the film to make the case for greater
efforts to reduce the demand for drugs.

"I was struck when the drug czar played by Michael Douglas questions
the lack of emphasis placed on drug treatment," said Leahy.

"The comment that stood out most for me was, how can we fight a 'war
on drugs' when the enemies are drug users who are members of ordinary
American families?"

One by one, officials are taking in the movie, often with younger
family members. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., saw it with his 16-year-old
daughter. "It had a very powerful effect; it's caused me to rethink
our policies and priorities," he later told commentator Arianna Huffington.

On the television show "20/20," Barbara Walters asked Bush about the
movie and "its premise that the war on drugs is a failure, and many
Americans feel that way. Can a president do anything about that?"

Bush, who once overcame a drinking problem, responded: "I think we
need to examine all policies in terms of treatment. I think we ought
to focus on treatment programs that work."

Acclaimed by most reviewers, the film also has its critics. Sen.
Joseph Biden, D-Del., described it as "simplistic and wrong: It
concludes that we're losing this effort, that we should give up on law

"That's So Wrong."

Biden and retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the former drug czar,
said the film poses a false choice between law enforcement and drug

"It wasn't very subtle," said McCaffrey, a former general now teaching
part time at West Point. "The message was the futility of it all, the
madness of those involved, that it's all failing. You wouldn't know
that drug abuse is substantially down from 15 years ago.

"When Douglas says, 'Why aren't we talking about treatment?' -- well,
we are, and we're doing a lot."

Even its critics, however, acknowledge the film's power and

William Bennett, another former drug czar, said in a Fox News
interview: "I disagree with some of it, but it has raised the issue
again, and that's a good thing."

Drug policy analyst McKinnon, who worked with Bennett on drug issues,
saw the film with her daughter-in-law, who took something very
personal from it.

"The portrayal of drug use was shocking and horrifying to her," said
McKinnon. "A picture is worth a thousand words, and many young people
get the message just how harmful this is."

The film includes a scene that's an unusual mix of Hollywood and Washington:
Douglas attends a cocktail party where real senators who are playing 
including Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Charles Grassley,
R-Iowa, who chat with Douglas and give him a few words of advice about his new

Hatch afterward criticized the film for its profanity and violence.

Groups that are pushing to decriminalize drug use say "Traffic" has
boosted their cause. Ethan Nadelman, who heads the Lindesmith
Center-Drug Policy Foundation, likened the movie to "Dead Man
Walking," which got people talking about the death penalty. Others
compare it to "The China Syndrome," which questioned the safety of
nuclear power plants in 1979.

"Films, late-night talk shows -- that's how many people get
information these days," said Zeese, of Common Sense for Drug Policy.
"This movie doesn't preach, but it gets your attention and makes
people think."

Jack Valenti, a former aide to President Lyndon Johnson and the
longtime chairman of the Motion Picture Association, noted a certain
irony: Senators used to criticizing Hollywood are responding to a film
that includes some of them and poses hard questions to political leaders.

"I think it's one of the great anti-drug films ever made," said
Valenti. "It also shows that unless you do something about demand, you
can hang all the drug dealers till the skies grow dark, and it won't
stop it."
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