Hard lessons from 'Traffic'

Posted: Mar 19, 2001 12:00 AM
The drug czar-elect in the movie "Traffic" has decided to look at the grit of drug trade and drug addiction firsthand, to which end he forages about Tijuana and has a near overdose. Groggy from what he has seen, he accosts his staff on his posh private plane going back to Washington.

Michael Douglas does one of his jut-jawed scenes, with which the movie is replete, and says he wants all ideas ventilated. Everything . The director, who is headed for Oscarland, wisely decided to cut away before any new ideas were in fact proffered, because the drift of the movie -- like the drift of public policy in the matter of drugs -- is: Continue, at breathless speed, to accomplish ... nothing.

At the last press conference, press secretary Ari Fleischer was asked if the president had seen the movie.

Answer: Yes.

Have there been any policy changes on the matter of drugs? Mr. Bush has said that in his view (personally tested), treatment is more effective than punishment. To this end, when talking about the subject with the president of Mexico, the idea was evidently tossed around to concentrate less on interdicting supply than on "reducing demand."

How do you do that? Well, of course, the conventional way is to punish those who make up the demand. If Johnny is thinking of buying some coke, the idea of a couple of years in jail is supposed to deter him, and certainly does deter some prospective users. The movie seen by the president glancingly acknowledges the point, but its dramatic focus isn't on Socratic monologues that weigh the lure of a snort over against the horror of a prison term. The focus, quite understandably, is on young people who would do anything for another fix and, in the movie, do.

Another deterrent is to expose the addict or near-addict to a depiction of what it is like to suffer the thralldom of drugs. Five recovering users in California were interviewed in Phoenix House, the fine drug recovery center, after being shown the movie. They discussed their own itineraries en route to addiction, and one 17-year-old said that if she had seen this movie, she probably would have found the strength to knock off from drugs.

And then, of course, what is universally acknowledged as necessary is the loyalty and devotion of parents. But, for the record, this didn't help the "Traffic" people one bit. Michael Douglas' 16-year-old daughter repaid parental concern not at all, adding wrinkles every few minutes to her father's concern.

The movie ends with a Little League baseball scene that suggests that there is a ray or two of sun out there waiting for those who hope hard enough. The baseball scene comes right after an Alcoholics Anonymous-type sequence in which the daughter stands up before her fellow addicts, giving details of her ordeal and the steps she thinks useful in combating the temptation.

But the dramatic theme of the movie isn't about recovery; rather it is on hopelessness at every level, the hopelessness of the addict, and of laws and mores that collapse under the pressure of money. "How can Mexico's drug lords ) begin to match the resources of the United States?" one naif asks. He is abruptly stopped by a war-weary official who says the drug lords are 10 times as powerful as their adversaries. What they have working for them is Americans willing to pay $50 billion for their products.

Recent figures advise us that hard-core cocaine users 10 years ago numbered 3.5 million. The figure today? 3.5 million. The key question then becomes: How many of those who 10 years ago used coke are still doing so? Some continue to use the drug, some are cured, and some are dead. What is the interrelationship between public policy and the incidence of cure? What would that 3.5 million figure be if laws against coke were relaxed? What would it be if the $20 billion now spent on deterrence were instead spent on therapy? Ten years ago heroin users numbered 600,000. Now it is 980,000. What was the drug czar doing who let that happen? Did we run out of money? Manifestly the heroin makers have not run out of money.

One does not sense, in the new administration, any dramatic insights on how to redirect policies that would seem to have failed. President Bush is not, by background or disposition, a natural leader for a dramatic change in policy. Yes, by all means reduce the demand. And yes, it would help prospective drug takers to see the movie "Traffic." On the other hand, it would be prudent not to view it repeatedly. That would make the viewer reach out for any drug in sight.