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
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