And the Meaning of "Traffic" Is...? 2/2/01

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Christian Ettinger for DRCNet

"Traffic," the widely viewed and seemingly even more widely commented on Hollywood hit about a day in the life of the drug war, carries a mixed message, and that is turning out to be a mixed bag for drug policy reformers. While director Steven Soderbergh's latest film shows the futility of the drug war, its overheated depiction of drug use has become fertile fodder for drug warriors who ignore the film's anti-drug war message.

Early on, some drug policy reformers thought that with "Traffic," they had a red-hot vehicle for advancing the cause. Activists from the November Coalition ( held vigils outside movie theaters where the film played. One participant at a Nevada vigil told DRCNet her group passed materials and photos of nonviolent drug prisoners.

And it is working. She wrote that since the vigil, four people actually called her to find out how they could get involved in stopping the drug war. "Having a human face to look at makes the issue seem more real," she wrote.

Meanwhile, Shawn Heller, National Director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy ( has also been using the film as a teaching tool. "I point out the recent trends in the reduction in education spending vs. the increase in prison spending," he told DRCNet. He said students connected with SSDP are going to movie theaters around the country distributing flyers and assembling groups to go see the film as a formal outing.

But while drug policy reform activists see the film as an opportunity to end the drug war, some drug warriors also view the film positively. One hard-liner goes so far as to say that "Traffic" is a call to increase the drug war's intensity. Robert Maginnis of the Family Research Council, a conservative lobbying organization, has only good things to say about "Traffic."

For Maginnis, the film is a call to arms. In an editorial titled "Traffic' Provides a Wakeup Call for Bush," Maginnis wrote, "Hollywood is rarely helpful when it comes to formulating policy for a new administration, but President elect George W. Bush could glean some important ideas about America's 30-year-old drug war from the hit movie "Traffic."

And what might those be? What Maginnis gleaned from the film is testimony to the mutability of its messages (and, to be fair, the immutability of certain strongly held beliefs). "Legalization is not the answer," Maginnis discovered. "Legalizing drugs will cause social costs to skyrocket, with increases in homelessness, unemployment, lost productivity, medical care costs, accidents, crime, school dropouts and child neglect."

Some progressives have lambasted the film. Louis Proyect of the Black Radical Congress both decried the film's portrayal of black America as racially insensitive: "In a search for his daughter, which has all the hyped up intensity of a Charles Bronson revenge melodrama, Wakefield (the new drug czar, played by Michael Douglas) descends into the black community, which takes on all the characteristics of the Casbah. Blacks on the street appear menacing to Wakefield as if each had a knife in one pocket and a drug stash in the other."

Others view it as a clarion call for an end to prohibition.

Arizona Republic columnist Ricardo Pimental, in an essay quoted at length in a subsequent William F. Buckley column, wrote: "We see that the monkey on our back is not drugs but the addictive need to get tough on an issue that demands far more finesse than a wiretap, a SWAT team and border blockade. Soon President Bush's agenda will be the appointment of a drug czar. Before he does that, however, he, his cabinet and the drug czar designate should see 'Traffic.'"

Salim Muwakkiil of In These Times agreed. "'Traffic' lays bare the futility of a destructive war on drugs that has gridlocked our culture in the logic of law enforcement. The film should be mandatory viewing for Congress and the incoming Bush Administration."

That disparate voices like Maginnis and Muwakkiil, with their wildly differing interpretations of the movie, are calling on the new president to ponder this film, is testament both to its power and its ultimately confused message. As Soderbergh himself told the Village Voice, "Traffic" may not be the windfall reformers hoped; instead it seems to act as a Rorschach ink-blot of a film where viewers see what they want.

"The funny thing is everybody who sees it thinks it puts their point of view across and I was expecting exactly the opposite," said Soderbergh. "We had a screening in Washington for Customs, the DEA and the Department of Justice and they all came out saying they really liked it. The following night there was this hardcore leftie NPR PBS screening in LA and some guy stands up and goes, 'Thank you for making the first pro-legalization movie.' Then the other night former New York City Police Commission Howard Safir (the architect of the city's no-tolerance anti-marijuana campaign) came to a screening and said he thought it was the most accurate representation of law enforcement he'd seen in a long time."

The movie's star, Michael Douglas, seconded that analysis. "Everyone who has seen the movie comes out of it with a different reaction. We screened it for the DEA and Customs and they're happy with it, believing it shows how tough their job is. Other people see it and think the message is that the war on drugs is futile."

A mixed bag, perhaps, but "Traffic" is stirring debate, and the activists are taking advantage.

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Issue #171, 2/2/01 Drug Arrests on New Jersey Highways in Freefall in Wake of Racial Profiling Scandal | Sen. Dodd Introduces Bill to Suspend Certification Process, Supports Move Toward Multilateral Drug War Evaluation Mechanism | Interview: Sanho Tree on Colombia | And the Meaning of Traffic Is...? | Drug Testing Declines Among Private Employers, but Testing Industry is Ready to Fight | Drug Bills in the Virginia Legislature: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly | Decriminalization and Medical Marijuana Bills Introduced in New Mexico Legislature | Newsbrief: US 9th Circuit Court Tosses Out HUD "One Strike and You're Out" Eviction Policy | Newsbrief: MS Sufferer Guilty in DC Medical Marijuana Case | The Reformer's Calendar: Portland, Philadelphia, New York, DC, SF, Minneapolis, St. Petersburg, Fort Bragg, Miami, Amsterdam, New Delhi | Editorial: Moving Forward with Open Eyes

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