Drug War Prisoners


For someone who cannot forget that 500,000 people wake up in prison in America each day who are not common criminals but prisoners of the War on Drugs, the movie Traffic is a disappointment. Regarded by some Drug War critics as a portrayal of the futility of pursuing a war against people who use illegal drugs (use = consume, possess, distribute, manufacture, conspire to do any of these things), Traffic goes only just so far in this direction. A moviegoer may come away with the impression that the Drug War is indeed a futile enterprise, but for reasons that are not immediately clear. Something is missing, which makes it difficult to know how to interpret the movie, or how seriously to take it.

The unspoken premise is an economic one. Supposedly, Americans are enamoured of the use of illegal drugs and will pay what it takes to obtain them. Demand is high, and as happens with the buying and selling that goes on in markets, supply keeps pace with demand. The market in illegal drugs may be an illegal market, but it follows the principles that govern markets nonetheless. Supply keeps up with demand no matter what obstacles stand in the way.

To digress for a moment, there are different positions one can take in opposing the War on Drugs. The economic position is one alternative. There are also moral, psychological, and what may be called historical positions - moral, when the concern is with questions of right and wrong, and the Drug War is conceived of as fundamentally wrong; psychological, when questions of the thought processes at work in those who promulgate the Drug War are the issue, and the thinking of Drug War advocates is seen as primitive; "historical," when it is surmised that the U.S. is in the grip of a metaphysical process where its power is torn asunder by internal divisions. None of these is a position taken in Traffic, which is morally neutral, psychologically bland, and historically insensitive. The concern is exclusively with economics.

Traffic assumes, but does not say, that Americans by the million enjoy the use of illegal drugs. The demand for illegal drugs is topped by the demand for few other non-essential goods. So strong a demand will always be satisfied by those who are willing to provide their services. User and provider, demand and supply, each inevitably balances the other.

Two assumptions follow from the economic premise - that trafficking in illegal drugs conforms to the principles that govern market operations. One is the impotence of government officials to erase the illegal market. The Drug Enforcement Administration might as well cancel its shoot-outs and spy networks for all the difference they make to the market's vitality. The other is what from a law-abider's point of view is the corruptibility of human nature. Dangle sufficient money before the eyes of anyone, the theory goes, and that person will do the dangler's bidding. This applies as much to Traffic's Mexican drug lord as to the upscale San Diego businessman and kingpin who channels the product (cocaine) on the U.S. side of the border.

Whether these assumptions and the economic theory they derive from are strong enough to prove the Drug War futile is a question that may not be worth debating. The answer can go both ways. Take a laissez-faire approach, and the outcome is more of the same. Drug War or no Drug War, the traffic in illegal drugs flourishes. Back off, take a military approach, and the situation looks different. Pile on the military equipment, men, salaries, bureaucracy, propaganda, and other relevant components of a fighting war, and the market in illegal drugs may well be possible to stamp out. Considered from this viewpoint, the Drug War may not be futile after all.

Steven Soderbergh the director has the same opinion. Soderberg compares Traffic to something like a Rorschach test. The movie tells the viewer about the viewer's dispositions. A critic who desires nothing better than an end to an irrational policy and its replacement with one more sane and civilized sees the futility of Traffic writ large. Hope for a better world is possible if society takes the lesson of Traffic to heart. A military-minded critic sees nothing of the sort. Watching Traffic is an exhilarating experience. Not enough has been done to kill the traffic in illegal drugs. For the Drug War advocate the challenge to buckle down and do more is obvious. To wave the flag of futility is the defeatist's game - if things went far enough the traitor's game.

To state the economic argument, the movie dwells on extreme examples of the buyer-seller (consumer-supplier) spectrum. The DEA mounts shoot-out. Dealer is caught. Dealer gets immunity from prosecution in exchange for agreement to testify against San Diego kingpin. Dealer meets sticky end on day testimony is due in federal court. Case against kingpin collapses…. At the consumer end of the spectrum, the spotlight is on Caroline, teen-age daughter of the newly appointed drug czar, hopped up on cocaine (perhaps cocaine supplied by the San Diego connection). Catherine swings with friends in privileged, rich-kid Washington, exhibits teen-age angst as to the futility of adult occupations - an ironic twist that for some tastes goes on too long - and succumbs to prostitution.

Corrupt drug lord and businessman at one end of the supply chain and unhappy Caroline at the other stand as extreme examples of seller and buyer in economic partnership. Extreme characters and situations delineate plot and stoke dramatic interest, but at the cost of rendering invisible ordinary people and events that happen in real life. For example, nothing is seen in Traffic of the "trafficker" who deals small quantities to set aside a stash for personal use - and gets whacked with 20 years in prison for his pains. Nothing is seen of the street bazaar where dealing goes on in inner cities, places where people in the so-called underclass buy and sell as a means of getting by. Unemployed and unemployable - it's hardly fair to pin the label of corrupt human nature on everyone who distributes illegal drugs. Again, nothing is seen of the dealer at the low end of the distribution chain who turns informant in exchange for lenience, perhaps, but nothing like immunity, a far cry from the high-end dealer who has information to incriminate a kingpin.

Technically, a lot can be said in Traffic's favor, for example, the innovative use of color tinting to distinguish settings in Mexico, San Diego, and Washington - yellow tint for Mexico, no tint for San Diego, blue tint for Washington. Since this commentary is less a review of technical prowess, acting, direction, or photography than a probe into the question of Traffic's take on the futility of the Drug War, attention is more profitably focused on the question of the film's deficiencies. What does Traffic lack?

For all its cinema-verité, documentary appearance, Traffic provides an unrealistic picture of the Drug War. The moviegoer who attends a showing of Traffic receives an impression that is sadly deficient.

With two million prisoners incarcerated in the country's jails and prisons - one per cent of the adult population - close to a third of these being prisoners of the War on Drugs - officials in charge of Drug War operations have hurt more people, done more harm, than illegal drug use ever could left to itself. Ominous as the number of Drug War prisoners is, no less disturbing is the secrecy in which the truth is buried. In particular, in a film that purports to depict the truth about the Drug War, how may the astounding omission of the existence of 500,000 Drug War prisoners be explained?

Several possible explanations come to mind. One stems from the fact that Traffic is a remake of the Channel Four (U.K.) television feature Traffik, a 6-part, 6-hour production that came out in the early 90s and was shown on PBS. Locations and characters in the movie Traffik translate a U.K.-Europe-Pakistan-heroin story into a U.S.-Mexico-cocaine narrative. Reduction in length from 6 hours to 2˝ hours required elimination of scenes that played a less than crucial part in the original and a sacrifice of character development. By and large, however, the movie Traffic is faithful to the original. Perhaps because the TV Traffik ignored the Drug War prisoner question, which it did, the movie Traffic defers to the original and maintains silence on the question also.

By itself, this explanation is not convincing. It fails to show why the Drug War prisoner question was ignored in the first place. Certainly, in European countries people are imprisoned for possessing, producing, or distributing illegal drugs - the same drugs which are illegal in the U.S. But the scale of imprisonment there is far below the crisis level it has reached in the U.S. Prisons in the U.K. and Europe and for that matter Canada, one country to the north, do not hold the vast quantity of Drug War prisoners confined in U.S. prisons. From this it might be suggested that the TV Traffik could depict the Drug War fairly without venturing into the Drug War prisoner question, though a remake in the context of U.S. conditions could not do the same: if it did, it could not claim high marks for honesty.

A second explanation has to do with the common fear of violating a taboo. The taboo against a realistic portrayal of prisons and prisoners is fixed in Western and probably all social groups. Hollywood portrayals of prison life, when they occur, are caricatures of the real thing. The taboo discourages identification with individuals convicted of a crime, establishes a barrier between the "good" person outside prison and the "bad" person in, and helps society to preserve existing values. On top of this, Drug War prisoners are subject to a further taboo. Not only is it inadvisable to mention prisoners in polite company, but association with drug use casts the Drug War prisoner into a yet more base category of the unmentionable. It would be surprising if the makers of Traffic risked offending mainstream audiences by portraying the reality of 500,000 prisoners, many no different in character or morals from the character and morals of a viewing audience.

A third explanation may be closer to the mark. A scene occurs early in the movie where the new drug czar is feted at a Washington reception by guests who offer all kinds of advice. One of the guests is Ethan Nadelman - real-life Nadelman, playing himself - the articulate spokesman for harm reduction. Now advocates of harm reduction are noted for their avoidance of radical proposals to end the War on Drugs. The strategy is to urge discussion, call for commissions of inquiry, circulate literature on the basis of which a consensus on how to end the War on Drugs will emerge - in general to let others decide, and refrain from staking a position too outspokenly. In the sense that a definite position on drug use and drug users is unstated, the harm reduction position is negative. No one says that users in a liberal democracy should have the right to use drugs that are presently proscribed. Similarly, harm reduction advocates do not call for the release of Drug War prisoners. Radical proposals of that kind are unwelcome.

Aside from its "don't know how to end it" stand, the harm reduction movement is noteworthy for advocating lenience with regard to public health concerns such as needle exchange clinics in the cause of AIDS prevention. The movement pays keen attention to the relative cost of a military approach to the use of illegal drugs and treatment. On grounds that marijuana use is for practical purposes harmless, an advocate of harm reduction wants reform of laws prohibiting the use of marijuana. Harm reduction attracts the support of people who are critical of Drug War propaganda. But the harm reductionist is careful not to rock the boat and risk upsetting officials whose cooperation in the future could be helpful.

Suppose that the approach of Traffic is at bottom the approach of harm reduction. This would account for the emphasis on economics. It would account for the fuzzy moral stand the movie takes on dealing and consuming illegal drugs. It would account for the reluctance to portray the "ugly" side of the War on Drugs, the harm done to civil society. It would account for the embarrassing conclusion, where the flummoxed drug czar, sitting with his wife, attends a "faith-based" treatment center where their errant daughter speaks of coping with her addiction one day at a time. It would account for the ambivalence in regard to whether the Drug War is a futile enterprise. And it would account for the silence in regard to 500,000 Drug War prisoners.

For whatever reason, Drug War prisoners count for nothing in Traffic -- the ultimate futility. . To prisoners this is of no great consequence. Traffic is rated R, and movies of a more sensational rating than PG are not, as far as this reviewer knows, screened before a prison audience.

drugwarprisoners review, February 2001






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