The 13th Step

Even some drug war opponents buy into its lies.


Why is it that ostensibly pro-drug movies can never quite deliver the goods, can never quite depict drug use as something other than depraved? When Trainspotting hit American theaters in 1996, the controversial tale of Scottish heroin junkies was preceded by a storm of controversy about its allegedly positive, consequences-free portrayal of drug use; the evening yak shows and op-ed pages nattered on about its "irresponsible" content and worried about its likely effect on the youth of America. The promise of a drug movie that didn't follow a shopworn moralistic script was precisely the reason I wanted to see the film. Trainspotting, alas, disappointed, though not because it wasn't a thoroughly entertaining, compelling, and at times disturbing drama.

It was all that, to be sure, but it also participated in a long tradition of conflating drug use with addiction and highlighting the seamier sides of drug culture: In one scene, a character sifts through a filthy toilet in a desperate search for a suppository that will get him off; in another, a baby dies due to its junkie parents' neglect.

While the film was thankfully in no way a "hey kids don't do this at home" morality tale, it certainly didn't reflect most people's generally positive experiences with illegal drugs, nor did it make the case for legalization easier. If anything, by dwelling on the dark side of drug use and showing its potential for violence, criminality, and destructiveness, it reinforced the drug warrior mindset.

So it is with Traffic, the new Steven Soderbergh film that's been called "a blistering look at our nation's hypocritical and useless war on drugs" (to quote a typical rave review). Though the movie mounts an extensive and generally effective critique of the drug war in its current, hyper-militarized version, it also recycles a number of hysterical myths about drug use that could have come straight out of an old Dragnet episode.

Released in late December in New York and Los Angeles and nationwide in early January, Traffic has garnered a tremendous critical response, winning recognition from the American Film Institute as one of 2000's outstanding films and a best picture nod from the New York Film Critics Circle; more recently, it snagged two Golden Globe awards. The movie has also done well at the box office, making over $21 million in its first full week of wide release. "Exemplary Hollywood social realism," J. Hoberman approvingly notes in the Village Voice. He's right. Though stylishly photographed and well-acted, the film is, to a large extent, an old-fashioned "message" movie.

Which is to say it is riddled with clich?s that ultimately undercut its effectiveness at delivering the news that, as all the main characters say at some point, the War on Drugs is a colossal waste of money, time, and lives that will never succeed in its goal of eradicating drug use. But even as Traffic seeks to chastise those who conceive and prosecute our nation's misguided anti-drug policies—more medical treatment, less police could be the movie's mantra—it paints illegal drugs as soul-sapping enslavers whose use almost inevitably leads to despair and degradation.

Thus, as the first major motion picture to specifically call the drug war into question and the latest in a long line to demonize actual drug use, Traffic is simultaneously a "breath of fresh air and a…gasp of hysteria," in the words of Associate Editor Jesse Walker. Indeed, only in a context of institutionalized hysteria about illegal drugs—only in a world in which the nation's drug czar signs off on TV scripts, demonstrably worthless programs such as DARE put cops in grammar school classrooms, police arrest over a million Americans each year for possession, and tens of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders languish in state and federal prisons—could such a movie have any power at all to move reviewers or audiences.

As Traffic unfolds over two and a half hours, we watch the intersection of characters, situations, and insights made familiar from other crime flicks: corrupt Mexican cops and army types who are secretly in bed with drug lords; stupid, overconfident U.S. government officials who gravely misjudge situations only to recognize—too late!—the error of their arrogance; U.S. drug agents conflicted by what they recognize is their impossible mission; ruthless drug traffickers who have grown fabulously rich off their trade and acquired the trappings of legitimate businessmen even as they ruthlessly order the deaths of anyone—anyone!—who gets in their way; and the intimation that illegal drugs are "an unbeatable market force," the very apotheosis of consumer capitalism, which itself seems to bring out the worst sort of amoral greed in people.

Traffic's social-realist impulse reaches its nadir in the plot involving Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), a conservative judge from Cincinnati, Ohio, who is named drug czar. Even as he is jetting to Washington, D.C., to meet with his new boss and talk interdiction strategy, Wakefield's privileged, high-achieving daughter Caroline enters a whirlwind of drug addiction and sexual degradation straight out of Reefer Madness.

Early on, we see her and assorted schoolmates from a tony prep academy, still clad in their school uniforms, killing an afternoon at one of their parent's mansions by smoking dope. Soon enough, a male classmate—ironically played by one of the lead actors from Fox's That '70s Show, the only network series that dares admit that using pot can be fun—introduces a willing Caroline to the pleasures of freebasing cocaine. She is immediately hooked, incessantly smoking the stuff and accompanying her friend into the ghetto to cop her next score (what's more, she's always quick to have sex when high).

After a classmate overdoses, her parents put Caroline into a 12-step treatment facility, but she runs away at the first opportunity and heads straight for her dealer, trading her body for highs and becoming an IV drug user to boot. She is fully redeemed only in the penultimate scene of the movie, where she again addresses an audience of fellow addicts at a rehab center.

You could be forgiven for suspecting that such a ludicrously overwrought cautionary subplot might have been inserted just to get the film made. Studio bosses are legendarily gutless wonders and it's easy to imagine them wanting some sort of ham-handed anti-drug message to offset the rest of the movie. However, in interviews Soderbergh has consistently talked about drug use as both a "health care" and "public health" issue. So it's not surprising that Caroline, as the only regular drug user in the film, perpetuates an "instant addict" stereotype that justifies, if not the drug war in its current form, then prohibition or super-strict regulation of everything from marijuana to LSD to heroin.

Indeed, Traffic trades heavily in the related and well-worn ideas that drug use is a cry for help—at one point, Caroline avers she is "angry" at the world—rather than an enjoyable pastime; that drug use destroys the will of a user rather than reflects it; and that to use drugs is by definition to abuse drugs. These are the beliefs that ultimately underwrite the War on Drugs: After all, if illegal drugs are so powerful that they can turn even good girls from the right families into needy, desperate drug whores virtually overnight, then there is a powerful claim on society to make sure such substances are kept out of circulation. If the privileged few can't handle the stuff, what chance do the rest of us have?

As it turns out, that's a false question. Illegal drugs, after all, are already widely available, even for kids (as one of the characters in Traffic puts it, it's easier for kids to score drugs than booze), and research by the Rand Corporation finds that a country's laws play a relatively small role in the decision to use drugs. Yet they remain a temptation for a small portion of the U.S. population. According to1998 data from the government's own National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, only 6 percent of respondents 12 years and older reported using "any illicit drug" in the previous month, a figure that has remained relatively constant over the past decade.

More to the point, despite popular images that conflate recreational or casual drug use with debilitating drug addiction, the government's data suggest a very different, though predictable, pattern: Drug use increases from late adolescence through young adulthood before tapering off dramatically. Using 1998 figures, about 10 percent of 12–17-year-olds reported using "any illicit drug" (almost always marijuana) in the past month. The figure was 16 percent for 18–25-year-olds; 7 percent for 26–34-year-olds; and 3 percent for 35-year-olds and over.

Though the overall percentages have changed from year to year (they are down sharply from 20 years ago), the basic pattern of youthful drug use giving way to middle-aged sobriety doesn't vary, strongly suggesting what those of us who have used drugs on a recreational basis know to be true: The overwhelming majority of people who choose to do drugs do less of them as they get older, work longer hours, take on more responsibility, and the like. Not surprisingly, the same pattern holds for rates of "heavy drinking"—defined as "drinking five or more drinks on the same occasion on each of 5 or more days in the past 30 days."

Far from our drugs controlling us, by and large we control our drugs; as with alcohol, the primary motivation in taking drugs is to enjoy ourselves, not to destroy ourselves. Though cultural artifacts such as Traffic fail to acknowledge it, much less represent it, there is such a thing as responsible drug use and it is the rule, not the exception. (Even heroin, legendary for its purported addictive properties, does not turn its users into zombies. Though there are no definitive figures on the matter, a widely cited 1976 study found that only 10 percent of heroin users could properly be classified as addicts.)

This is no small matter: The popular front that has long supported the drug war—and its annual $37 billion price tag at the local, state, and federal levels—is beginning to crack. The generally positive response to Traffic reflects this, as does the ease with which medical marijuana ballot initiatives pass and the willingness with which politicians ranging from New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson to the members of the Congressional Black Caucus openly criticize national drug policy.

The debate over drug policy is clearly at an inflection point. But ending the current version of the drug war, with its emphasis on interdiction, law enforcement, and imprisonment, isn't synonymous with the end of prohibition or with drug legalization. That case still needs to be made, perhaps now more than ever.