Lite Traffic: OK Movie, Bad Drug Policy Analysis

Since I make my living thinking about drug policy, everyone is asking me about Traffic, which is being treated as a serious look at drugs and drug control.

Martin Peretz’s comment in Slate’s “Breakfast Table” this week is typical of the seriousness with which people are approaching Steven Soderbergh’s film: “You can’t tell whether the movie is for the war on drugs or against it. People leaving the theatre were already arguing about this, a sure sign that the movie hit them in the solar plexus.” Well, maybe, but any movie that serves low-calorie thought substitute about a hot issue can elicit that sort of discussion.

Traffic is actually two movies. One is a pretty good Pulp Fictionesque thriller about drug enforcement on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. The other is a rather silly essay on drug policy and how it is made in Washington, seen through the eyes of a newly appointed drug czar. The czar, and the audience, learn about the futility of the “war on drugs” as he tries to manage the enforcement operation on which the thriller centers (a move against a major Mexican drug organization) while confronting his 16-year-old daughter’s descent into addiction.

The movie observes the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington convention of Hollywood policy analysis: No complex problem requires serious thought or complicated action; anecdote trumps research; and outsiders are morally superior to the wicked folks in Washington. In this mythos, the Outsider (the more ignorant the better), relying only on his personal experience and virtue, sees clearly what needs to be done and either succeeds in doing so or is foiled by the Beltway bandits (“beggars in $1,500 suits,” as the drug czar calls them). This stuff isn’t harmless politically. Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush all got elected on it.

The film has one on-target scene: A Georgetown cocktail party in which a collection of Washington insiders, playing themselves, bombard the new czar with depressingly realistic drug policy sound bites. But the movie never gives its audience any way to evaluate which of those slogans might contain a germ of good sense. The same applies to the implausibly prosy set speeches about drug policy some of the other characters make.

That one good scene is offset by two supremely silly moments. In the first of these, the new czar orders his assistant to clean out his schedule so he can escape the Beltway and learn about what’s really going on by–I’m not making this up–taking canned tours of border installations and hearing canned lectures from middle managers in enforcement agencies. In the second, he orders the people flying on his plane–intended to represent the top honchos of the “drug war,” as if those folks had nothing better to do than follow this tourist around and answer his silly questions–to “think outside the box” and give him an instant solution to the problem of drugs coming into the U.S. from Mexico. Their silence is supposed to tell us how dull and unimaginative they are rather than how dumb the czar’s request is.

Traffic doesn’t pitch a pat solution to “the drug problem.” But it does come down clearly against “the war on drugs” in the maximalist, no-substitute-for-victory, forget-about-treatment-let’s-bust-more-dealers version that may be coming back into fashion with soon-to-be Attorney General Ashcroft. This pessimistic tone about the prospects of “winning the war on drugs” is fully justified, though the implied corollary that no useful progress is available short of “victory” isn’t.

We watch the drug czar learn that fighting foreign drug-trafficking organizations can’t fix the U.S. drug problem because, given the financial rewards, someone always finds a way to get the drugs across the border. Right, though hardly original. “If we built a 50-foot wall around the country, the traffickers would buy a 51-foot ladder,” then-DEA boss Jack Lawn told a congressional committee in 1985.

But that doesn’t mean, as the makers of Traffic seem to think it does, that all enforcement efforts are futile or that there’s a magic solution hidden inside a black box called “the demand side” or “treatment.” (Prevention isn’t mentioned.)

Neither the drug czar nor the moviemakers ever ask the basic questions about the nature of the problem and the effectiveness, limits, and side effects of actual and potential control efforts. (A group of drug policy wonks–of which I was one–issued a brief statement on this theme in 1997; see also the roughly contemporary statement by the College on the Problems of Drug Dependency.)

Asking those questions, the drug czar might have learned that drug abuse among affluent kids (such as his daughter) isn’t the whole drug problem and that most of the hard drugs go to–and most of the drug money comes from–consumers who are neither affluent nor adolescent. He might have seen a treatment program serving poor people in a grimy, inner city clinic rather than a prosperous, all-white clientele in a bucolic paradise. He might have seen reductions in drug use and their consequences rather than “cures.”He might have seen a real “dynamic entry” drug raid in which the dealer’s 5-year-old son sees guns pointed at his mother’s head rather than having his own patted by a nice DEA agent. He might have heard about the suffering of the half-million people behind bars on drug charges and of their families, or about HIV and hepatitis C, or violence among retail dealers, or about police strategies that help contain that violence and why they’re rarely used.

Someone might have mentioned the tension between “use reduction” and “harm reduction,” or the differences between sensible marijuana policy and sensible cocaine policy, or epidemic cycles–with heroin now coming on strong as cocaine fades–or the big payoffs from drug-testing probationers, or changing the regulations that limit opiate maintenance therapy, or replacing D.A.R.E. with more effective prevention programs, or …

Yeah, I know you don’t go to the movies to be lectured about this stuff. Neither do I. But the claim that the film provides useful knowledge for citizens isn’t supportable when it never even hints at the crucial details or why they matter. As long as we believe that our only options are “the drug war” or some synonym for “legalization,” all paths to progress are blocked. Traffic does nothing to help open them up.

Mark A. R. Kleiman is a professor of policy studies at UCLA, chairman of BOTEC Analysis Corporation, and editor of the Drug Policy Analysis Bulletin.

Suggested reading

Read RAND’s Jonathan P. Caulkins’ (et al.) book on the limits of prevention (Adobe Acrobat required). Mark A.R. Kleiman talks about marijuana with Frontline. Peter Reuter writes about realistic measures of treatment success and why partially effective treatment is well worth its cost as well as on the costs of punishing without reflection.

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Still by Bob Marshak © 2000 USA Films. All rights reserved.