‘Traffic’ Shifts Debate on ‘Drug War’
The Washington Post reports that the "critically acclaimed" film "Traffic" -- which depicts the national "crusade" against drugs as a "well-intentioned flop" that "squanders billions on efforts to disrupt supplies while doing little to curb demand through programs" such as drug treatment and education -- has "not gone unheeded" on Capitol Hill, with senators Wednesday calling for a "balanced" and "holistic" approach to fighting drugs. During a Senate hearing yesterday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who had a cameo role in "Traffic," called the film "kind of a final tipping point" that convinced him of the "need to step up funding" for drug treatment and prevention. "That movie just brought it home to me that we've got to do more," he said. The Post also reports that many other lawmakers "apparently feel the same way" (Lancaster, Washington Post, 3/15). Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that "Traffic" had a "very powerful effect. It's caused me to rethink our policies and priorities." Last month, President Bush, who had "attacked" the Clinton-Gore administration for fighting the drug war "without urgency, without energy and without meaningful success," conceded, "I think we need to examine all policies in terms of treatment. I think we ought to focus on treatment programs that work" (Huffington, Salon.com, 2/23). In Congress, Hatch and Republican and Democratic colleagues introduced legislation that would boost funding for antidrug research, prevention and treatment by $900 million.
Expressing support for the film, Peter Kerr, a spokesperson for Phoenix House, the nation's largest not-for-profit drug treatment provider, said, "It was the right thing at the right time. Until recently, if you wanted to talk to members of Congress about drug treatment, there would be a long sigh and a recognition that this is good for them to listen," although they privately concluded, "'I'm not going to spend any of my political chits on this because I don't see the percentage in it'" (Washington Post, 3/15). Still, while "Traffic" may have "transformed the political debate on the drug war," Salon.com asks, "What will it take to turn the change in rhetoric to a change in policy?" (Salon.com, 2/23). During the hearing yesterday, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, referred to the film in his opening statement, saying, "As someone who has long supported efforts to reduce the demand for drugs, I was struck when the drug czar played by Michael Douglas in the film ... questions the lack of emphasis placed on drug treatment. The comment that stood out most for me was the question of how we can fight a 'war on drugs' when the enemies are drug users who are members of ordinary American families." Still, some conservatives criticize "Traffic," arguing that the film "poses a false choice" between imprisoning drug users or providing them with treatment, "when both are often necessary." In addition, former White House drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey said that lawmakers from both parties have already acknowledged the "need to devote more resources to drug treatment and prevention programs," pointing out that since 1996, the federal government has increased spending on antidrug education by 55% and on drug treatment by 35%. He said, however, "Its actual impact on thoughtful people was helpful."
During yesterday's hearing, Hatch cited a study which found that "in 1998, states spent $81.3 billion -- about 13% of total state spending -- on substance abuse and addiction." Hatch added, however, that states spent only $3 billion on drug prevention and treatment, using the rest to "shovel up the wreckage of substance abuse and addiction." Some "liberal" advocacy groups, including the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, have "seized on" the film to promote decriminalization of drug use. The group has urged President Bush to "appoint a drug czar who will 'think outside the box,' as Michael Douglas's character pleads for in the movie 'Traffic'" (Washington Post, 3/15). In addition, according to "Traffic" screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, "I met very highly placed officials in Washington who basically said to me, 'You know, off the record, this is BS. I feel like I disappeared down a rat hole. How did I get into this stupid war on drugs?' I heard that so many times I can't even tell you -- from people who then have to go out and do a press conference and go, 'Yeah, we're winning the war on drugs, buddy'" (Salon.com, 2/23). Still, the Post reports that "there is no such groundswell" on Capitol Hill. Hatch said, "We must, and will, continue our vigilant defense of our borders and our streets" against drug traffickers. Alan Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, added, "There's no question that there's growing understanding of the importance of a public health approach," but "[i]t would be a serious mistake to pit" law enforcement and public health approaches against each other. "We need great vigor on both fronts," he said (Washington Post, 3/15).