Published on Monday, January 15, 2001 in the Chicago Tribune
Can 'Traffic' Loosen Drug-Policy Gridlock?
by Salim Muwakkil
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 dispassion.
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.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times
Copyright 2001 Chicago Tribune