Although it sounds like a porn movie franchise, Breaking the Taboo is actually a one-hour documentary about the war on drugs that premiered on YouTube last Friday. Produced by Sam Branson, the son of Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson, and narrated by Morgan Freeman, the film highlights an emerging international critique of the war on drugs that in recent years has attracted support from various former (and a few current) heads of state, many of them associated with the Global Commission on Drug Policy (which counts the elder Branson among its members). Breaking the Taboo documents this important trend while offering a concise and accessible explanation of the problems caused by the attempt to forcibly separate people from the psychoactive substances they like. But it suffers from some of the same halfway haziness as the drug policy commission's 2011 report, which criticized the status quo without forthrightly condemning prohibition. Former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the commission's chairman, put it this way at the time:
I am not proposing to replace war by peace. I am proposing to replace war with a smarter fight, a fight using other instruments, more intelligent instruments to convince people not to use drugs.
God forbid we should replace war with peace. That quote, which is featured in Breaking the Taboo, encapsulates the perhaps deliberate ambiguity of a film that plays up all the familiar costs of the war on drugs—including violence, corruption, the enrichment of thugs and terrorists, the destablization of source countries, and the squandering of law enforcement resources—without settling on a clear alternative. As possible models of reform, it mentions the Netherlands, where retail sales of marijuana are tolerated (though still officially illegal); Switzerland, where addicts can obtain heroin by prescription; and Portugal, where drug use is decriminalized but consumers still must contend with "dissuasion committees" and the trade remains illegal.
What do all of these examples have in common? Drug prohibition. (The film was completed before voters in Colorado and Washington approved ballot initiatives aimed at legalizing commercial production and distribution of marijuana, a development noted in a caption at the end.) Reflecting this lingering attachment to the arbitrary distinctions enshrined in our drug laws, the film focuses on a 1971 speech by Richard Nixon as the beginning of the war on drugs, ignoring the 57 years of drug prohibition that preceded it. Breaking the Taboo's reluctance to talk about repealing prohibition, as opposed to merely de-escalating the war on drugs, is also reflected in this tellingly edited quote from a 1989 speech by President George H.W. Bush:
If you do drugs, you will be caught, and when you are caught, you will be punished. Some think there won't be room for them in jail. We'll make room.
Here is what Bush actually said:
If you do drugs you will be caught, and when you're caught you will be punished. You might lose your driver's license—some states have started revoking users' driving privileges. Or you might lose the college loan you wanted—because we're not helping those who break the law. These are privileges, not rights. And if you risk doing drugs, you risk everything, even your freedom. Because you will be punished.
Now, I can imagine a few whispers out there: Maybe you think we'll never get drugs under control, that it's too easy for the dealers to get back on the street. Well, those days are over, too. The revolving door just jammed. Some think there won't be room for them in jail. We'll make room.
In other words, Bush wanted to make room in prison for dealers, not for users. By compressing this passage from the president's speech, Breaking the Taboo reinforces the misconception that people commonly go to prison merely for using drugs, thereby missing an opportunity to challenge the idea that people should go to prison merely for helping others use drugs. Worse, the film lends credence to pseudoscientific justifications for viewing drug users as the victims of predatory drug suppliers. If you use drugs, warns Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho, "You will lose the ability to makes decisions. The greatest danger of drugs is that they destroy the most important thing in life: the power to decide." Former President Bill Clinton, citing his cocaine-addicted brother as the source of his expertise, likewise declares: "Don't be drug-free because it's illegal. Be drug-free because it's the key to your freedom; it's the key to your future."
It is jarring to hear such absurd, absolutist proclamations from people presented as critics of current policy in a film that condemns "moralistic" anti-drug propaganda and repeatedly describes the goal of "a drug-free society" as a silly fantasy. Clinton nevertheless implicitly makes the case for legalization, as opposed to a kinder, gentler war on drugs:
We could have fighting and killing over cigarettes if we made it a felony to sell a cigarette or smoke one. So we legalize them. If all you do is try to find a police or military solution to the problem, a lot of people die, and it doesn't solve the problem.
Former Swiss President Ruth Dreifuss is more explicit: "I am sure that regulation by the state, with very clear limitation, is the solution." Anthony Papa, a drug reform activist who spent 12 years in prison for delivering an envelope containing 4.5 ounces of cocaine at the behest of a police informant, asks a question that also points to legalization: "If you can't control drug use inside a maximum-security prison, how could you control drugs in a free society?" The petition to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon "and all Heads of State" that the film's producers are urging people to sign likewise seems to envision a world in which people may buy and sell currently banned psychoactive substances without fear of arrest or prosecution (emphasis added):
We call on you to end the war on drugs and the prohibition regime, and move towards a system based on decriminalisation, regulation, public health and education. This 50 year old policy has failed, fuels violent organised crime, devastates lives and is costing billions. It is time for a humane and effective approach.
As I argue in my book Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use, the claim that no one in his right mind would ever use drugs because they enslave you and take away your ability to choose sits rather uneasily with a call to end the prohibition regime.