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TRAFFIC IN REALITY

As a character in Trainspotting observes, after vomiting from a heroin injection, drugs do make you feel great; similarly, 16 year old Caroline Wakefield in Traffic, takes drugs because she enjoys the experience, even though it comes at a high price. So why aren’t we making safer drugs and selling them under controls like alcohol, to replace the illegal ones sold by criminals, asks Andrew L. Urban.

We are all familiar with the notion of safe sex – the inconvenience and minimal loss of pleasure is a small price to pay for the greatly reduced risk of illness or even death.

Why not safe drugs? The urge to adventure in exciting sensations will not be killed off by hyperbolic politicians and hysterical do-gooders. As young people, we start on drugs like we start on cigarettes; it’s exploration and the search for excitement, sensations, extremes.

As if you need to be told yet again, the ‘drug problem’ is not simple, nor is it responsive to simple solutions. Indeed, it is not responding even to attempts at complex solutions. Political, religious and ideological differences – like whether or not to have legal injection rooms under supervision – have hindered rather than helped the dual objectives of eliminating drug trafficking and at least reducing illegal drug abuse.

When a film like Traffic, with its non-judgmental, almost documentary aesthetic, hits the screens, it unleashes another torrent of arguments about how to curb drug trading and taking. But Soderbergh makes it clear the film is an entertainment first:

"I don't want the audience to feel like they're being educated. I want people to come out and go, 'That was some ride!' My experience of Erin Brockovich taught me a lot about finding an entertaining way to present an underlying serious theme. There is a balance to be had where people are being entertained on the one hand, but underneath there is something happening that they don't think about until later. You never know what each person will take out of it. I hope Traffic works on a dramatic thriller level. I want those people who just want to see a roller-coaster ride of a story to be happy."

Speaking for myself, he has certainly achieved that. But he’s also achieved the toughest challenge of a film with so inherently a volatile subject as drugs – and one so universal.

EVERYBODY’S PISSED OFF - AND WRONG

"The idea is to suggest the larger picture by focusing in great detail on a small aspect of that picture. If we've done our jobs right on Traffic, everybody will be pissed off. The decriminalisation people will think that we were not proposing their point of view; the hard-core, lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key people will think we're being too soft. It would be great if everybody comes away thinking that we took the other side's approach. We're trying to be as dispassionate as we can, just show you a snapshot and say, 'This is what's happening now.'"

Like many filmmakers, Soderbergh is not in the business of trying to provide solutions for society’s ills, or answers to the desperate questions of life. A photographer can interpret, or simply present what is in front of the camera. Likewise a painter. Or a sculptor. It is not the task of the artist to solve such apparently insoluble problems as global drug use.

"The war on drugs takes place in many different countries at many different levels with varying degrees of success, or lack of success," says one of the producers, Marshall Herskovitz. "Traffic tries to give a sense of the craziness of all of that, as well as the human drama - and, in odd moments, the comedy - of it, because there are those perverse juxtapositions in the war on drugs. The movie tries to be very honest, as well as entertaining, about how difficult it is to pursue a war on drugs when millions and millions of people in this country are using drugs. We're talking about every aspect of society: middle-class, wealthy, men, women, children, professionals. There is an enormous demand for drugs in this society, and until we deal with that demand and why it exists and the psychological issues and issues of rehabilitation, we are never going to make a dent in this war."

Spot on, Marshall! "…enormous demand for drugs …. Until we deal with that demand……never going to make a dent in this war . . ." Here is a film producer articulating what many drug-related social workers are saying and have been saying. It is pointless and wasteful and frustrating - and a bit stupid – to focus on the drug dealers. (Make no mistake: I’d happily see them all burn in hell.) But chasing them (and their endless successors) at the expense of finding lasting solutions is just a political charade in the absence of creative problem solving.

DRUGS – A JOYRIDE

As Traffic so clearly and so effectively shows, people take drugs because they like the effect. Look at the judge’s daughter Caroline Wakefield (Erika Christensen); she’s an average teenager, indeed, an average white, upper middle class teenager. What does she have in common with the average poverty stricken black or Hispanic teenager on the streets of America? Or any kid in any street in Australia or anywhere else in the world sampling drugs for the simple reason they’re great at making you feel better in a world seemingly full of shit? The tendency to explore the world while growing up – including an insatiable appetite for pleasure, for exploration of all the joys that our five senses can give us.

‘Caroline Wakefield’ should be a symbolic wake up call to politicians and bureaucrats with influence around the world; this is typical and universal. What it suggests is that the solution to ‘the drug problem’ lies in accepting the facts of life and responding accordingly. It is dangerously misguided to think that if we jail every drug dealer, the drug problem will be fixed.

Instead, if we accept that teenagers (and many others) will continue to seek the pleasures and joys of illicit drugs – no matter how dangerous, no matter how often they are told ‘don’t take drugs’ – we might begin to think of more creative solutions. For example, the main health reason illicit drugs are a serious world problem is their potentially deadly after effects, and their habit forming properties. This is compounded by uninformed use and by a money-generating illicit trade which allows even more dangerous concoctions to be sold.

The other main danger is found in the criminalisation of the trade, encouraging high prices, criminal acts to secure funds for drugs, and the dangers of a crime world fighting for supremacy and profits beyond belief.

CAN WE CREATE SAFE DRUGS?

Imagine, then, if the billions earmarked for the war on drugs around the world was channeled into research to develop safer versions of the most popular drugs which avoided the dangers but generated similar ‘highs’ and ‘hits’ as cocaine, heroin, ecstacy, smack, speed or marijuana. It may be a naïve and impossible idea, but if the solution is in tampering with demand, then it is one option to consider. A sort of ‘safe’ version of illicit drugs, that can be used for recreational purposes – without the dangers, without the crime, without the dealers. Pure alcohol, for instance, is a killer; in beer and wine, it poses a more acceptable risk.

Amy Irving, who plays Caroline’s daughter in Traffic, comments; "The Wakefields, a fairly typical family, are confronted with the hard fact of their daughter having become a drug addict. It's a different world today than in the 1960s, when drugs were recreational. My character experimented with drugs in college and was a bit of a radical. Like all good radicals, she grew up and now works within the system.

"Adults who grew up in the '60s and experimented with and experienced drugs might be more lenient and less fearful because they have personal knowledge and familiarity with the subject. What's dangerous today is that the drugs are much stronger, there's no control, and it's no longer just a recreation. It's a very dangerous business now, and the people selling drugs are targeting kids. This film shows how, on all the levels, drugs are affecting our world, our children, families, politics - everything. I don't think there's anybody who doesn't know someone who hasn't faced the drug dilemma in one way or another."

ALCOHOL NOT SPIKED AND SOLD BY CRIMINALS

Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, who grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, says, "To the bored kids in the Midwest, drugs and alcohol are a way to have a little adventure. You can pick up a six-pack, go out, and have an adventure with little consequence. But for that under 10 percent of the population that has addictive personalities, it has a different level of risk. And these people will turn into tragedies: they throw away their lives, ending up living in jail, institutions, or dead. Or they'll quit and get sober. There's no in-between."

Inadvertantly, Gaghan highlights the point: kids are buying alcohol, which (age aside) is legal. At least the substance is made and marketed under some controls, and sold legally. Drugs are not. So while looking for a little excitement, those kids with a sixpack of legal drugs and $25 worth of illegal drugs are risking their entire lives.

Those well meaning but misguided critics of legalisation and legal injection rooms (both only partial solutions) have no idea how much damage they have done – all from ignorance and misplaced righteousness. Legalising alcohol has not solved abuse problems – perhaps minimised some of it. But it sure as hell stopped spiked liquor being sold at exorbitant prices by criminals. I get mine at a nearby shop.

Relative screen newcomer Erika Christensen won the coveted role of Caroline Wakefield, the A-plus high school student living with her parents in an affluent Cincinnati suburb, whose spiral into drug abuse causes her family to rethink their priorities. While at first drugs are a weekend and after-school recreation for her, Caroline's eventual addiction takes her from the manicured neighborhood of her parents' Hyde Park home to the streets and alleys of Cincinnati's inner city, where drugs of all kinds are readily available - for a price.

Christensen says, "For me, the script was very powerful because it showed the scope of the drug problem and how it's not limited to a certain social strata. My character is a straight-A student, a National Merit Finalist - and a coke and heroin addict. It's a good demonstration of how addiction can happen to anyone if they don't take responsibility for their own life."

We cannot hope to change human nature, but we can use intelligence and science to minimise social problems, instead of emotive or politically expedient hot air. Let’s traffic in reality for a change.

Published March 8, 2001

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TRAFFIC

Script: Stephen Gaghan

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Mexican policeman Javier Rodriguez (Benicio del Toro) with his friend and colleague Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) work the Mexican/US border in the fight against drug running, under the powerful General Salazar (Tomas Milian) – and get caught up in a web of corruption.

At the same time, Justice Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is named the US President’s new anti-drug zcar, and he instigates contact with the Mexican anti-drug initiative. But even as he burrows into his new job, the judge and his wife Barbara (Amy Irving) discover their teenage daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) burrowing into drugs in a big way.

And in San Diego, undercover agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) are working on a case against the infamous Obregon drug cartel run from Mexico. On the way, they get a lead and arrest mid-level dealer Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer) whose innocent (and pregnant) wife Helena (Catherine Zeta Jones) is dragged into the turmoil.

Australian release: March 8, 2001







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