Published on Thursday, March 15, 2001 in the Washington Post
In Senate Debate on Drugs, 'Traffic' Moves Minds
Movie Helps Build Support for Greater Emphasis on Treatment and Prevention, Lawmakers Say
by John Lancaster
As depicted in the critically acclaimed movie "Traffic," the national crusade against drugs is a well-intentioned flop that squanders billions on efforts to disrupt supplies while doing little to curb demand through programs such as drug treatment and education. It is a message, apparently, that has not gone unheeded on Capitol Hill.
In a case of policy imitating art, or at least echoing it, a Senate hearing room yesterday resounded with pleas for a "balanced" and "holistic" approach to fighting drugs in which treatment and education programs are elevated to the same importance as law enforcement agencies charged with targeting drug producers and importers.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who presided over the hearing and had a cameo role in "Traffic," said in an interview that although he has some reservations about the movie, it was "kind of a final tipping point" that convinced him of the need to step up funding for treatment and prevention. "That movie just brought it home to me that we've got to do more."
Many of his colleagues apparently feel the same way. In that regard, admirers say, "Traffic" recalls such politically influential movies as "The China Syndrome" (1979), which heightened public anxiety about nuclear power plants, and "The Day After," which, when it was broadcast in 1983, helped invigorate the nuclear freeze movement.
Last month, President Bush acknowledged the need to curb Americans' appetite for drugs during his trip to Mexico, while in Congress, Hatch joined Republican and Democratic colleagues in introducing legislation that would, among other things, increase funding for anti-drug research, prevention and treatment by $900 million. Admirers of the film include Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Joseph A. Califano Jr., a former secretary of health, education and welfare, who praised its unflinching look at drug-related corruption in an opinion piece for The Washington Post this week.
"It was the right thing at the right time," Peter Kerr, a spokesman for New York-based Phoenix House, the nation's largest nonprofit provider of drug-abuse treatment, said of the film by director Steven Soderbergh. "Until recently, if you wanted to talk to members of Congress about drug treatment, there would be a long sigh and a recognition that this is good for them to listen to" even as they privately concluded, " 'I'm not going to spend any of my political chits on this because I don't see the percentage in it.' "
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, made specific reference to the film in his opening statement yesterday. "As someone who has long supported efforts to reduce the demand for drugs, I was struck when the drug czar played by Michael Douglas in the film . . . questions the lack of emphasis placed on drug treatment," Leahy said. "The comment that stood out most for me was the question of how we can fight a 'war on drugs' when the enemies are drug users who are members of ordinary American families."
The movie has its share of detractors, chiefly conservatives who regard it as a plea for decriminalization. During an advance screening in Washington in November, William Olson, staff director for the drug caucus headed by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), walked out of the film, telling Soderbergh, "Shame on you." Conservatives argue that the movie poses a false choice between locking up drug users or providing them with treatment, when both are often necessary.
Moreover, it is not as if the filmmakers invented the policy issues illuminated by "Traffic." Well before the movie opened in theaters, lawmakers from both parties had been acknowledging the need to devote more resources to drug treatment and prevention programs, and, over the past several years, have begun to do so, according to retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey. He headed the White House drug control policy office in the Clinton administration. The federal government has increased spending on anti-drug education by 55 percent and on drug treatment by 35 percent since 1996.
Referring to the movie's implication that "if only you could reduce demand, the criminals would go away," McCaffrey said, "Talk about a breakthrough in Western intellectual thought. Why didn't we think of that? Well, we did."
But McCaffrey, who saw the film several weeks ago, said he welcomed its contribution to the debate on drug policy. "Its actual impact on thoughtful people was helpful."
"Traffic" addresses the drug issue from several perspectives, including that of anti-drug agents battling corrupt government officials in Mexico as well as the character played by Douglas, who discovers that his teenage daughter is addicted to cocaine. The themes it evokes could hardly be more timely.
Last year, for example, Congress approved a plan to spend $1.3 billion to help Colombia's armed forces eradicate drug crops that finance illegal armed groups. At the same time, lawmakers have grown increasingly concerned about the rapid growth of the nation's prison population, much of which is a result of harsher penalties for drug-related offenses.
"I do think there has been some shift," said Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.), who in June tried to amend the Colombia plan to shift $225 million to drug treatment programs. The amendment lost on a lopsided 89-11 vote. Now, he said, "I think that amendment would be a close vote."
At yesterday's hearing, Hatch cited a study showing that "in 1998, states spent $81.3 billion -- about 13 percent of total state spending -- on substance abuse and addiction." Hatch noted, however, that only $3 billion of that was spent on prevention and treatment, with the rest going to "shovel up the wreckage of substance abuse and addiction," as the study's authors put it.
Some liberal advocacy groups have seized on the movie to promote their case for decriminalizing drug use. Perhaps the most prominent is the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, which cites the movie in its campaign to influence Bush's choice of a new White House drug policy coordinator. In a recent news release, the group said it is "urging President Bush to appoint a drug czar who will 'think outside the box,' as Michael Douglas's character pleads for in the movie 'Traffic.' "
But there is no such groundswell on Capitol Hill. At yesterday's hearing, Hatch emphasized, "We must, and will, continue our vigilant defense of our borders and our streets against" those who traffic in drugs.
Several witnesses also espoused that view. "There's no question that there's growing understanding of the importance of a public health approach," Alan Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said in an interview. But he added, "It would be a serious mistake to pit" law enforcement and public health approaches against each other. "We need great vigor on both fronts."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company