"Traffic": This Is Your Government on Drugs

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A
Hollywood blockbuster with a laudable political message? Is it possible?
Believe it or not, it is. The movie is Steven Soderberg's "Traffic,"
and its message is that the war on drugs is a hideous failure. Libertarian
cinema buffs will want to know the answer to two questions: (1)
Is "Traffic" a good film? (2) Is it effective anti-drug-war
propaganda? The answer to both is a qualified yes.

"Traffic"
tracks the lives of various combatants and civilians in the drug
war, some of whose paths intersect only tangentially, if at all.
Michael Douglas plays the newly appointed U.S. Drug Czar, whose
prep-school daughter descends into crack addiction as dad tries
to adjust to his new job. Catherine Zeta-Jones (too pregnant during
the filming to play Douglas's daughter, apparently) is a young woman
whose husband, unbeknownst to her, has been running much of the
Southern California drug trade. Benecio Del Toro plays an honest
Mexican cop (yeah, yeah, but it's a movie) trying to stay
alive and do a little good as he feeds a corrupt Mexican general
to the DEA.

The
film shifts rapidly from subplot to subplot throughout. At times,
this moves the story along briskly; other times, it seems a little
too brisk – as if designed for a stoner's attention span. The jagged,
hand-held-camerawork is unsettling – intentionally and effectively
so. But the use of a yellow filter to shoot the Mexican scenes was
pretty unsubtle: "Look: we're in Mexico now. See how everything
looks dingy?"

Happily,
whatever weaknesses the film has are largely redeemed by the performance
of Benecio Del Toro as Javier Rodriguez, the Mexican cop. Who knew
that Del Toro, heretofore largely a B-movie bottom-dweller (see
this year's straight-to-video Way of the Gun. Or don't.), had the
stuff of greatness in him? With his bleary eyes, his hangdog face,
and his air of infinite weariness, Del Toro makes the perfect noir
antihero.

So
"Traffic" is well worth seeing, independent of its message.
How does it play as agitprop? How many of the key decriminalization
arguments appear here, and how effectively are they presented?

The
film is at its best demonstrating the futility of the drug war.
It's often been said that the drug warriors are doomed to failure
because they're socialists battling entrepreneurs; but it's never
been illustrated as dramatically as it is in "Traffic."
Early on, a drug magnate turned government witness describes how
he and his Mexican counterparts performed sophisticated statistical
analyses on the likelihood of any individual courier getting caught,
and simply flooded the system with enough mules to make the losses
profitable. Later, another character displays the latest in high-tech
smuggling: a child's doll that appears to be plastic, but is actually
made out of pressurized, impacted cocaine. The dolls are to be sent
over by the truckload, and reconverted to powder stateside. Shortly
after that scene, as the camera pans back, showing the vast line
of cars waiting to pass through the customs station and enter the
U.S., the absurdity of federal interdiction efforts becomes manifest.

In
its portrayal of addiction, however, the film stumbles, and unintentionally
undermines its decriminalizationist message. It's one thing –
and entirely believable – for Caroline Wakefield (Erika Christensen),
the Drug Czar's teenage daughter, to be a drug user. Jim Bovard's
Feeling
Your Pain: The Explosion and Abuse of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore
Years
has a three-page list of prominent politicians' kids
who've been busted for possession and/or dealing in the last several
years, and let off scot-free (pp. 103-105). But does Caroline have
to become a full-fledged crack whore?

That's
not a figure of speech: in the space of a few weeks, the 16-year-old
Caroline goes from booze and bong hits with her plaid-wearing, country-day-school
friends, to turning tricks in a Cincinnati hot-pillow joint. What
is this, an after-school special?

Is
it too much to expect a movie that's honest about the drug war to
be honest about drugs? It's certainly inadvisable to smoke crack,
but there's little evidence that one hit instantly turns an honors
student into Robert Downey Jr. As psychologist Stanton Peele has
pointed out, government data show that crack is no more habit-forming
than powder cocaine – and neither is habit-forming enough to warrant
hysteria. The NIH-funded National Institute on Drug Abuse surveys
show that "in 1999, ten (9.8) percent of high school seniors
report that they have ever used cocaine, and five (4.6) percent
have used crack. In the last 30 days, three (2.6) percent used cocaine
while one (1.1) percent used crack." As Peele explains, the
figures show that "even with this youthful population, fewer
than a third of those who have used crack used it in the last month."

Soderberg's
decision to take a "Reefer Madness" approach to crack
is regrettable. Your average, nonideological American may well come
out of the theatre thinking that the drug war's a losing battle,
but if it saves just one well-scrubbed middle-class child from the
depravity depicted onscreen, then dammit, it's worth fighting.

"Traffic"
would have sent a more powerful message to SUV Nation had Soderberg
focused more on the growing US police state engendered by the drug
war. The American cops portrayed in the movie are dedicated, well-meaning
public servants; drug prohibition apparently only causes police
corruption down in Mexico (where everything's a seedy yellow color).
Would it have been so hard for Soderberg to include a tyrannical
federal prosecutor coercing confessions through use of the criminal
forfeiture statutes and mandatory minimum sentences? Or a pack of
donut-munching paramilitaries kicking down the wrong door and terrorizing
a law-abiding family?

Well,
you can't have everything. Even if it doesn't make the best possible
case against the drug war, "Traffic" may introduce the
idea of decriminalization to many people who would otherwise accept
prohibition as a given. And that's a start.

January
12, 2001

Gene
Healy is an attorney practicing in Northern Virginia.

Gene
Healy Archives

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