HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Can 'Traffic' Loosen Drug-Policy Gridlock?
Pubdate: Mon, 15 Jan 2001
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2001 Chicago Tribune Company
Contact:  435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611-4066
Author: Salim Muwakkil
Note: Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times


A good movie can sometimes clarify the spirit of the times like nothing 
else and "Traffic," a new film that surveys the varied battlefields of our 
nation's drug war, is that kind of movie.

Like "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" helped us absorb the inevitability of 
integration in 1967, like 1969's "Easy Rider" ratified the death of the 
hippie ethic, "Traffic" lays bare the futility of a destructive war on 
drugs that has gridlocked our culture in the logic of law enforcement.

This is not to say that the film delivers any specific message about U.S. 
drug policy. "Traffic" is not a polemic. The film's persuasive powers come 
from an accumulation of mundane details rather than from any dramatic 
epiphany. The audience is left to contemplate the absurdity of a policy 
that worsens problems it's designed to solve.

Steven Soderbergh, an arty, independent filmmaker who first found success 
with the movie "sex, lies and videotape," directs the film. In "Traffic," 
he combines a gritty, documentary-style with conventional Hollywood 
narrative (including cliches of "gateway" drugs and race-sex debauchery) 
and his distinctive, "indy" touch to craft a movie of exceptional power. 
Whether it works as cinematic art, I leave to the critics. But there's no 
doubt that it works as propaganda.

Soderbergh probably would prefer his film be seen as art rather than 
argument. "We're trying to be as dispassionate as we can," he said in the 
production notes used to promote the film. But consider this: One of the 
movie's lead characters is the newly appointed U.S. drug czar who is taking 
over from a czar who was a general. The reference to the real outgoing drug 
czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, is obvious and belies Soderbergh's stance of 

And that's not the only touch of verisimilitude the film exploits. Several 
real-life politicians, including Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. 
Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), make cameo appearances. Hatch, a dedicated drug 
warrior, participated reportedly because he was told the film had an 
anti-drug message. And, in a sense, it does. One of the three major plot 
lines involves the addiction and implacable descent of one teenaged child 
of privilege. "Traffic" portrays a lurid scenario of drug addiction, but 
its ultimate message is that addicts are not our battlefield enemies. They 
are our families and they are ill. Treatment, not jail, is the correct 
prescription for that illness.

The film's panoramic scope gives viewers a glimpse into the cycle of 
sickness, cynicism and greed that perpetuates the drug war. Although the 
anti-drug effort has been a massive failure, it has been a rewarding 
enterprise. As one character in the film attests, law enforcement is often 
an entrepreneurial activity. We see clearly how creating criminals is good 
for police business and how even cops with good intentions are sucked into 
a vortex of corruption.

Of course, "Traffic" is just a movie. But it is a superbly timed movie. 
President-elect George W. Bush has yet to name his choice for director of 
the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and a wide-ranging coalition of 
public health, religious, police and drug-policy organizations has called 
on him to appoint someone with experience in public health. The group urges 
Bush to name a drug czar who "understands that most users are not addicts 
and are otherwise responsible citizens; and that drug abuse is a health 
problem that is not effectively treated by incarceration."

This is a reasonable request. Indeed, Republicans are doing most of the 
innovative thinking on drug policy these days. New Mexico's Republican 
governor, Gary Johnson, for example, is way ahead of the curve on 
drug-policy reform. When the New Mexico Legislature convenes Tuesday, he 
will introduce extensive reforms to the state's drug policies, including 
decriminalization of marijuana possession of less than an ounce, allowing 
the use of medical marijuana for terminally ill patients and the 
elimination of mandatory minimum sentences.

Meanwhile, the Senate this week begins considering the nomination of John 
Ashcroft as U.S. attorney general. Ashcroft, a drug-war devotee from the 
GOP's old school, has said, "a government which takes the resources that we 
would devote toward the interdiction of drugs and converts them to 
treatment resources ... is a government that accommodates us at our lowest 
and least."

"Traffic" is a cinematic refutation of that argument. The film should be 
mandatory viewing for Congress and the incoming Bush administration.
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