Since the late 1960’s, when Hollywood began turning them out with some regularity, movies about drugs have tended to follow one of two basic formulas. Some have tried to capture, with varying degrees of realism, the actual experience of drug use, with results ranging from psychedelic celebrations like the countercultural “classic,” Easy Rider (1969), to jarring cautionary tales like Trainspotting (1996). More widely seen, and more commercially successful, have been the countless movies—The French Connection (1971), Midnight Express (1978), Scarface (1983), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Lethal Weapon (1987), Clear and Present Danger (1994)—that have used the spectacular violence and profit of the illegal drug trade as a backdrop for conventional dramatic or action fare.

Traffic, the new film by the director Steven Soderbergh, borrows elements from both of these tried-and-true forms, but in the service of a much more ambitious goal. Inspired by a miniseries that aired on British television in 1989, Traffic weaves together three loosely intersecting story-lines into a portrait that, in the end, is less about any of the film’s characters than about the drug problem as a whole, from its impact on families to its place in our national politics. As Soderbergh told his screenwriter, “I want it big. I want to do an epic.”

Nor is the point of this broad cinematic canvas merely descriptive. As a number of critics have emphasized in their acclaim for Traffic—the New York Film Critics Circle crowned it the best picture of 2000, and it may well win the Academy Award after this article goes to press—the movie’s merits are not just of the artistic variety. Traffic, they insist, carries a sorely needed message. For Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, it effectively dramatizes “the basic staleness of our national debate on drug policy.” In the New York Times, Stephen Holden praised its “coolly scathing overview of the multibillion-dollar drug trade and the largely futile war being waged against it,” a view echoed, if more bluntly, by a writer for the on-line magazine Salon, who found the movie a refreshing declaration that the war on drugs is “all bullshit.”

No less pleased by Traffic have been the advocates of legalizing—or, as they prefer, “decriminalizing”—drugs. The Lindesmith Center, whose primary backer, the billionaire George Soros, has funded ballot initiatives across the country aimed at repealing various drug laws, has even devoted a state-of-the-art website to the film, complete with a video game and prizes. As Ethan Nadelmann, the group’s executive director, explained, “The movie got people stirred up and got them thinking—we hope to inspire them to get involved.”

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Each of Traffic‘s three narratives takes place in a different locale. The first, in Mexico, centers on a principled Tijuana policeman named Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro), whose success in combating local traffickers wins him a place by the side of the country’s leading drug-fighter, General Salazar (Tomas Milian), the head of the federal police. When Salazar turns out to be the corrupt tool of a leading cocaine ring, the disillusioned Rodriguez becomes an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), but not before his partner, intent on enriching himself by doing the same, is discovered by Salazar’s men and brutally murdered.

Meanwhile, across the border in suburban San Diego, Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a wealthy, pregnant housewife, returns from her posh country club one day to find that her husband, a legitimate businessman as far as she knows, has been arrested by the DEA—and that he is, in fact, the region’s chief cocaine distributor. Once over the shock, she quickly takes control of her husband’s criminal empire, going so far, finally, as to arrange the assassination of the chief witness against him.

As these events unfold on the front lines of the illegal drug trade, a rigidly conservative Ohio judge named Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) prepares to take his first trip to Washington as the President’s newly appointed drug “czar.” Unknown to him, however, his baby-faced, high-achieving prep-school daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen), has begun to use drugs, graduating quickly from marijuana to crack cocaine. Shaken by Caroline’s descent into addiction, and by his own helplessness to prevent it, Wakefield eventually resigns his new office and returns home to help her undergo treatment.

Though the three parts of Traffic occasionally overlap, it is never for more than a moment, just long enough, for instance, for General Salazar to declare his eagerness to cooperate to the credulous Judge Wakefield, or for the policeman Javier and the drug baroness Helena to cross paths at the U.S.-Mexico border. Indeed, a notable achievement of the film is that, despite its length (almost two-and-a-half-hours) and fast-paced cuts between largely unconnected plots, it moves along with great energy and coherence. The key to this accomplished story-telling is the distinctive look that Soderbergh (who doubled as the cinematographer) has imparted to each of the three narratives: the sequences in Mexico are in sepia tones, brightly lit and grainy, with the feel of an amateur documentary; San Diego appears in an almost surreal brightness and clarity; and the environs of Judge Wakefield, in both Ohio and Washington, are invariably bathed in cool blues and darkness.

Strong, too, is the overall quality of the enormous cast of Traffic, which features more than 100 speaking parts. Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, the film’s marquee stars, give competent if unremarkable performances, but they are upstaged by two lesser known actors, Benicio Del Toro as the stoical, slow-speaking Mexican cop and Erika Christensen, who brings the perfect combination of insecurity and sulky arrogance to the role of a spoiled, drug-addled teenager.

Given the nature of big Hollywood productions, Traffic‘s failings as a movie are predictable enough. Characters undergo wildly implausible transformations—from suburban matron to vicious drug lord, from blazer-wearing schoolgirl to trick-turning crack whore—in the blink of an eye. And the plot itself depends too often on drug-movie clichés: a distraught father searching the ghetto for his troubled daughter, cops waging a losing battle to protect a key government witness, third-world officials secretly serving the interests of an all-powerful drug syndicate.

All the same, Traffic is, as such things go, an engaging and original film, the sort of entertainment one wishes the movie industry produced more often.

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This is so despite the fact that Traffic is also a sophisticated bit of propaganda on behalf of the drug-legalization movement, or at least is decidedly in its corner. For obvious reasons, those associated with the movie have tried to emphasize what they see as its evenhandedness (“If we’ve done our jobs right,” Soderbergh has said, “everybody will be pissed off.”) And there are in fact a few sops in Traffic to those who take a harder line: two courageous DEA agents, the foot soldiers in the war on drugs, are perhaps the most endearing and attractive characters in the film; Judge Wakefield, at a Georgetown cocktail party, hears the advice of such conservative stalwarts (in cameo appearances) as Senators Orrin Hatch and Don Nickles; and the ordeal of young Caroline Wakefield, far from glamorizing drug use, shows its often hideous consequences.

But none of this interferes with Traffic‘s clear intent to argue that U.S. antidrug policy is an abject failure, focused wrongheadedly on supply rather than demand and depending exclusively on the crude tools of law enforcement. Sometimes this message finds expression in awkward speechifying: at one point, for instance, an arrested drug operative informs DEA agents, “Your whole life is pointless. You realize the futility of what you’re doing and you do it anyway.” The same message is delivered, with much the same thud, by Caroline Wakefield’s cocky, drug-supplying boyfriend, who, dragged to an inner-city crack house by her angry father, lectures him, “It’s an unbeatable market force, man.”

More often, however, and to its makers’ credit, Traffic pursues its ideological ends by more dramatic means. Particularly effective is the striking difference in look and style between the scenes in Mexico and those centering on Judge Wakefield. The drug war south of the border is presented almost hyperrealistically, its corruption and violence given verisimilitude by the choppy, unpolished, overexposed way in which it is filmed. In the policy circles of the U.S., by contrast, all is dark and cold and steady, matching the illusion of control that prevails there.

Indeed, it is the story of Judge Wakefield’s enlightenment—his gradual “waking,” as his name announces—that gives Traffic its didactic force. At every turn, he confronts the impossibility of his assignment. His predecessor as drug czar confides that his own efforts have probably not “made the slightest difference.” In El Paso, at a high-tech anti-trafficking intelligence center, he is told that the government cannot begin to fight the cartels, with their “unlimited budget.” When he asks his top aides to “think outside the box” about the drug problem—the “dam is open for new ideas,” he volunteers—they fall completely silent.

But it is the harrowing experience of trying to rescue his own daughter that finally shakes Judge Wakefield from his complacency. At his first White House press conference, he starts to describe his own “ten-point plan” to “win the war on drugs,” only to break off in mid-speech. “I can’t do this,” he tells the reporters. “If there is a war on drugs, then many of our family members are the enemy, and I don’t know how you can wage a war against your own family.” And with that, he hurries from the stage and out the door.

In his final scene, Wakefield—whose first appearance in the movie found him perched high on his bench, sternly admonishing a drug defendant’s lawyer—sits humbly alongside his wife at his daughter’s support group. “We’re here,” he says, “to listen.” Nor is there any ambiguity about the lesson he must learn. As one of Caroline’s fellow addicts declares, drug abuse is “a disease, an allergy of the mind”—or, as Stephen Gaghan, the film’s screenwriter (and himself a recovering addict), told the New York Times, “drugs should be considered a health-care issue rather than a criminal issue.”

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That there is a point to some of what Traffic is saying need not be denied. Most informed observers would concede that our decades-long campaign against illegal drug use has been less than a triumph. Nor is it especially controversial to suggest that certain methods have proved ineffective, or overly harsh, while others have not been employed nearly enough.

Last year, in response to charges of abuse, Congress made it more difficult for federal law-enforcement officials to seize, before trial, assets suspected of being tainted by drug money. More recently, commentators and public officials from across the political spectrum have raised doubts about the federal government’s $1.3-billion aid package for Colombia’s antidrug fight, as well as about the “mandatory minimum” sentences under which so many petty drug offenders are now serving time.

As for efforts at prevention and treatment, which Traffic suggests have been scanted, the most recent real-world drug czar, Barry R. McCaffrey, left office having overseen substantial increases in federal spending in both areas, and candidate George W. Bush pledged to spend a billion dollars in new funds for programs aimed at helping addicts come clean. The last five years have also witnessed a proliferation of specialized drug courts, which divert some nonviolent drug offenders to closely monitored programs of testing and treatment rather than just packing them off to prison.

Welcome as these reformist gestures may be, however, they should not obscure the substantial long-term progress that has been made against the use of illegal drugs—progress attributable in some measure to generational change but in no small part to the supposedly “failed” policies that are the target of Traffic. Not only has drug-related crime, like every other sort of crime, dropped substantially in recent years, but the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse shows an unmistakably positive overall trend. Half as many Americans now smoke marijuana as did in 1979, and a third as many use cocaine. During the same period, the number of users of any illicit drug fell from well over 25 million to under 15 million.

Such figures, needless to say, still point to a significant problem, a problem made more worrisome by recent slight increases of reported drug use among both teenagers and adults. But there is no reason to think that matters would improve—and a number of reasons to think they would grow considerably worse—by reversing course entirely and adopting the approach implicitly endorsed by Traffic and more forthrightly proclaimed by its friends in the drug-legalization movement.

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If legal sanctions against drug use were greatly relaxed or abolished altogether, one of the first casualties would undoubtedly be effective programs of treatment. As former drug czar William J. Bennett observed recently in the Washington Post (responding, it should be noted, to an attack against him in an interview given by Traffic‘s Stephen Gaghan):

One clear fact . . . is that success in treatment is a function of time in treatment. And time in treatment is often a function of coercion—being forced into treatment by a loved one, an employer, or, as is often the case, the legal system. . . . If we treat drug use as a purely medical problem, and treatment as something that can be only voluntarily taken up, fewer people will enter treatment—and those who enter treatment are less likely to get well.

Among the policies that could not survive such a change would be the promising, and widely discussed, proposal of drug-policy expert Mark Kleiman of UCLA to use regular drug-testing to impose “coerced abstinence” on parolees and probationers, who comprise the most intractable and dangerous population of drug users.

Moreover, by reducing both the cost and stigma of drug use, legalization in any meaningful form would inevitably result in a far greater number of users—and addicts. Proponents of ending drug “prohibition” often speak of the advantages of moving toward a system more akin to the one we have long had for beer, wine, and liquor: as Caroline Wakefield duly, if implausibly, claims at one point in Traffic, “for someone my age, it’s a lot easier to get drugs than to get alcohol.” But the fact remains that while over 80 percent of American high-school seniors have used alcohol, only some 10 percent have tried LSD or cocaine. When it comes to discouraging experimentation with hazardous substances, there is a world of difference between an age limit and an outright ban.1

Traffic may give a temporary boost to those who wish, despite these risks, to do away with an antidrug regime that has served the country reasonably well and, with modifications, might serve it still better in the future. In the movie’s favor, one might hope that it finally prompts politicians and policy-makers to retire the overused, and inappropriate, metaphor of a “war on drugs.” Wars tend to be discrete events, decided in a few mighty confrontations. With illegal drugs, the important struggles are abiding ones, requiring not dramatic action but steadiness and resolve.

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1 For an illuminating and wide-ranging discussion of the likely effects of removing the criminal sanctions on drugs, see James Q. Wilson’s “Against the Legalization of Drugs,” COMMENTARY, February 1990.

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