Published on Sunday, December 24, 2000 in the Observer of London
Hollywood Grasps Nettle of America's Failed Drugs War
A brilliant new film lifts the lid on the failure of US policy to deal with the billion dollar narcotics trade
by Edward Helmore in New York
America has waged war on drugs for 30 years but it is only now that Hollywood, for so long preferring either to romanticise or condemn the issue, is tackling the subject for the vast, devastating problem it is.

WhenTraffic opens in US cinemas on 27 December, its director, Stephen Soderberg, hopes it will re-ignite public debate over America's $19 billion a year drugs war just as a new administration is sworn in and the US embarks on Plan Colombia, a $1.3bn package of aid, including military hardware, that some warn will turn the world's largest drug producing region into a new Vietnam.

The thriller, based on a Channel 4 mini-series Traffik, accomplishes what no other film has attempted. Through interrelated stories, and with a large cast including Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, the film looks at drugs, their corrupting appeal and the futility of current efforts to stop them.

The film has has already won numerous awards from critics' circles in New York and Los Angeles as well as five Golden Globe nominations. Instead of making drug producers, traffickers, users and anti-drug forces the problem, Soderbergh goes after the complete picture. 'Drugs are a key social issue in our culture today: everyone knows someone who has been touched by it,' he says.

The film opens as the Clinton administration prepares to hand on to the next President a commitment to finance Colombia's drug war, an effort that may take years to yield results and could widen to neighbouring countries. Around 70 per cent of the US aid is to go to financing, training and supplying army anti-narcotics battalions in south-eastern Colombia, where an estimated 60 per cent of Colombia's coca and opium is grown.

Opponents of Plan Colombia say it will lead to the 'narcotisation' of the peace process, and to a further escalation of the war with guerilla insurgents.

Last week, Jorge Rojas, director of the Consultancy on Human Rights and Displace ment, said that under the pretext of the fight against drugs, 'control over national territory, the exploitation of natural resources and the biodiversity of the Amazon jungle are being put at risk for the benefit of the United States'.

In the Caribbean, the recently ended US Operation Libertador has been touted as 'a major takedown' by the Drug Enforcement Agency after police reported arresting 2,876 people, including the region's alleged narco-kingpin, Martin Paulino Castro, and seizing 20 tonnes of cocaine, 29 tonnes of mari juana and 82,000 tablets of ecstasy in a month.

But former Jamaican police colonel Trevor McMillan, who was fired after starting a clean-up of the island's police force in 1996, countered that America's war on drugs had done little more than corrupt. 'What the drug war has done is to drive the price of drugs up. Until we remove the profit from trafficking, nothing will change.'

As the US escalates funding for the war on drugs, the makers of Traffic make no claim to have answers to the problem. 'We wanted to make a film that asks what should we do, what can we do, are we doing the right thing?' says producer Laura Bickford. 'We've got praise for not presuming to have answers but for raising questions.'

But the film does suggest the drug issue is a problem of human nature, not a criminal one. And with 500,000 drug-related offenders in the US prison system and a further million on parole or probation for drug offences, America seems to be ready to re-examine its attitude to drugs.

In the recent elections, voters in five states overwhelmingly passed drug policy reform initiatives, including Proposition 36 in California, which will shift the criminal justice system's focus from incarceration to treatment. The measure won more than 60 per cent of the popular vote, 7 per cent more than Al Gore received in the state, and 18 per cent more than George W. Bush.

But qualms over 'America's Prison Generation', the 14 million mostly black or Latino Americans who will spend part of their lives behind bars, have not yet been reflected in Washington.

In the election campaign, drugs were barely mentioned as an issue by Gore or Bush, except to say they planned to get tougher on them. 'The silence around on the issue was deafening,' says Bickford, who spent years studying the subject for the film. But many hope the voter initiatives on drug policy will work their way into the White House.

Of course, politicians in Washington cannot afford to look soft on drugs and, with two consecutive Presidents with dubious pasts (Clinton's 'didn't inhale' fiasco and Bush's 'youthful indiscretion'), it is unlikely there will be an official shift in policies.

Traffic takes no position on the whether the war on drugs is futile but Bickford says the US is in danger of treating it like the war on Communism. 'You cannot attack supply without attacking demand and expect to get anywhere. Plus we wanted to say platitudes about the "war on drugs" don't work and just stopping supply isn't going to work either.'

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000