The Reel Drug War

The Reel Drug War

Steven Soderbergh's Traffic—for all its flaws—illustrates how the United States' is deluding itself in its crusade against drugs.


As busy as he is these days, George W. Bush should take time out to see Traffic, Steven Soderbergh's new movie about the war on drugs. For, in coming days, Bush must name a new drug czar, and seeing this movie could–and should–affect his choice. Traffic contains the usual disclaimer about its characters bearing no resemblance to real individuals, living or dead, but it is in fact a thinly veiled attack on the drug policy of the Clinton Administration and its outgoing drug czar, Barry McCaffrey. (As he prepares to leave office, Bill Clinton has suddenly become a drug reformer, calling for the decriminalization of marijuana and the overhaul of federal sentencing guidelines for nonviolent drug offenders. Where was he when we needed him?) In the movie, the drug czar, like McCaffrey, is a military man, and as in Washington, the Office of National Drug Control Policy has been taken over by the military and law enforcement. And as in real life, the White House is preoccupied with stopping the flow of drugs from Latin America into the United States.

In Traffic, Soderbergh dramatizes the real-life futility of that undertaking. Having written about the drug issue for years, I expected the movie to take many Hollywood-driven liberties with the facts. At points, the movie does lapse into melodrama; overall, though, it depicts US counternarcotics efforts with dead-on accuracy. In making the film, Soderbergh gained the cooperation of the US Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration. When a Customs official complained about aspects of the script, Soderbergh let him rewrite part of it. The DEA felt so comfortable with the director that it allowed him to shoot a scene inside the El Paso Intelligence Center in Texas–the first time a film crew was ever allowed inside the surveillance complex.

Often, access leads to co-optation, but not in Soderbergh's case. On the contrary, the input from law enforcement, by increasing the movie's verisimilitude, has added to the force of its indictment. One drug agent in the movie acknowledges that the traffickers have access to telecommunications devices far more sophisticated than anything the DEA has. A Customs officer concedes that for every drug shipment that gets seized, several others get through. A trafficker in a witness-protection program chides a DEA agent about the hopelessness of his effort to bring down a smuggling ring–even if he succeeds, others will quickly fill the gap.

Soderbergh's main vehicle for getting his message across is Robert Wakefield, a tough-on-crime state Supreme Court judge in Cincinnati (played by Michael Douglas). After being selected to become the next drug czar, Wakefield prepares for the job by going out into the field. At every stop, he is confronted by evidence of the drug war's failure. On a plane ride back from the border, the judge–surrounded by military officers–asks for new ideas in fighting the war. He is met by total silence.

What finally pushes Wakefield over the edge is his own 16-year-old daughter's descent into cocaine addiction–a subplot that's one of the movie's main weaknesses. Within a matter of days, the teenager goes from perky straight-A student to freebasing zombie who sells her body for drugs. Shades of Reefer Madness. Furthermore, the movie strongly implies that it is suburban whites like Wakefield's daughter who make up the heart of the nation's drug problem–indeed, every drug user depicted in Traffic is white and well-off. Of course, many privileged whites do abuse drugs, but so do plenty of poor African-Americans and Latinos. It's as if Soderbergh can't trust us to sympathize with drug-using minorities. This distorts the nature of the challenge facing drug policy-makers: The movie's addicts are all so well-heeled that they can pay for rehab out of pocket, but if treatment is a superior way to deal with drug abuse, as Traffic suggests, then the government will have to do much more in the way of providing it.

When Wakefield finally tracks his daughter down to a squalid flophouse in inner-city Cincinnati, he realizes that drug abuse is a deeply rooted social problem that cannot be fought with helicopters, guns or wiretaps. At the press conference to announce his appointment, the judge interrupts his prepared, cliché-ridden speech to ask, "How do you wage war on your own family?"

More and more Americans are asking the same question. Almost every time a drug reform measure has been put up for a vote, it has passed. In November, voters in California–tired of paying for ever more prisons–approved a referendum to treat, rather than incarcerate, nonviolent drug offenders. In Manhattan, increasing numbers of prospective jurors are being dismissed after expressing their reluctance to serve on cases involving low-level drug offenders. In early January, New York Governor George Pataki announced his intention to "dramatically reform" the notorious Rockefeller drug laws. The crowds lining up to see Traffic offer further evidence of the changing public mood.

How will Bush respond? On the one hand, he has repeatedly voiced sympathy for people dependent on drugs and alcohol. He has spoken frankly about his own drinking problem and how he managed to overcome it by religious faith. On the other, as governor of Texas, he presided over the nation's largest prison system, and he has seemingly never encountered a drug law he didn't like. Moreover, by invoking only the faith-based form of treatment, he leaves the impression that all addicts need to get well is to open their hearts to Jesus. Most troubling of all is Bush's nominee for Attorney General. Whenever he's had the chance, John Ashcroft has pushed for an intensification of the drug war. He belongs to a group of hard-core Congressional Republicans who have helped stymie all efforts at reform.

At a screening of Traffic in Washington last fall, Bill Olson, the staff director for Republican Senator Charles Grassley's drug caucus, walked out after Michael Douglas's bailout speech. "Shame on you!" he scolded Soderbergh–testimony to the strong emotions the movie is stirring and the stiff resistance its message is facing in Washington.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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