'Traffic' moves propaganda into drug-policy debate

Posted: Mar 16, 2001 12:00 AM
Whether or not the movie "Traffic" wins the Oscar for best picture, it still qualifies as the movie of the year, at least in Washington. Senators and policy wonks are invoking it as the motivation for new hearings - and a new focus on drug treatment. "That movie just brought it home for me that we've got to do more," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told The Washington Post. It was "kind of a final tipping point," convincing him to hold Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on how to fund more prevention and treatment programs. Other senators on the committee referenced the movie like co-workers at the water cooler. The Post called this renewed interest an example of "policy imitating art, or at least echoing it." Let's not get ahead of ourselves. If the movie helps drug-use prevention and treatment efforts, that's great. But before we start basing our drug policies on the message of a single movie, we should be clear about what that message is. Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-nominated script writer for "Traffic," told The New York Times last month that "If there is a message to the movie, I guess it's that drugs should be considered a health-care issue, rather than a criminal issue." He told ABC's George Stephanopoulos: "It's easier to raise your hand and say, 'Hey, I have a health-care problem. I need some help,' than to say, 'Hey, I'm a criminal. I need some jail.' "You know, we have so polarized the semantics of this debate that to say 'legalization' out loud brands you a revolutionary," says Gaghan. He suggests that, rather than stifle debate, we should, "do a test case somewhere and see what happens. Take a small place, try decriminalizing it, making it legal, giving it to the addicts, see what happens, open a dialogue, tax it, use the money for the treatment programs." After all, he says: "We've just filled up our prisons. I mean, they're just full. We build more, and we fill them up." This all sounds perfectly reasonable and humane. But it's actually very misleading and very dangerous. First of all, while it may make Gaghan feel good to say so, you are not a "revolutionary" for saying legalization out loud. William F. Buckley's National Review, the flagship magazine of the conservative movement and my employer, has been in favor of legalization for years. Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman is pro-legalization. Kurt Schmoke, the former mayor of Baltimore and current chairman of Yale's board of trustees, has been arguing in favor of decriminalization for more than a decade. In short, this is not a "revolutionary" topic only spoken about in hushed whispers by a few brave souls willing to speak the truth to the powerful. Second, legalizing drugs in a "small place" has been tried. In Switzerland, for example, they tried it in a park that quickly became known as needle park. They had to shut it down because it became a petri dish of scummy addicts, petty criminals and prostitutes. After that experience, the Swiss voted by 73 percent to reject drug legalization. If they had noted what a sewer Amsterdam turned into because of legalized drugs, they could have saved some hassles. Lastly, and most importantly, it's simply disingenuous to say that addicts fear getting help because they're afraid of being called "criminals." Nobody ever gets arrested for admitting to past drug use, and most addicted criminals are criminals not for using drugs but for robbing or stealing to pay for them. (Indeed, it's a myth that our prisons are "full" of nonviolent drug offenders.) Serious addicts are simply afraid of admitting they're serious addicts. It's humiliating to admit to a drug problem, but that's an inevitable byproduct of our society's reasonable effort to stigmatize drug use. Which is really the crux of the issue. It's amazing how many people can say with a straight face that we vitally need "hate crimes" laws to "send a message" about what is and is not acceptable in this country but at the same time reject the notion that our drug laws discourage people from doing drugs. More importantly, even if our drug laws don't do a great job discouraging drug users, they do have a hampering effect on drug dealers. Gaghan was a heroin and cocaine addict until his three primary dealers were arrested. "My dealer, my backup dealer and my backup-backup dealer. I was left alone, and I just hit that place, that total incomprehensible demoralization," he told The New York Times. Indeed, it was because his supply of drugs was cut off by our draconian drug laws that he was able to demand treatment. "Traffic" is a powerful movie, and it deserves much of the praise it's gotten, but let's not confuse a good message about drugs being bad with a bad message full of propaganda.