Last year alone, roughly $40 billion in taxpayer money was spent
fighting our elusive war on drugs, while mandatory minimum
sentencing laws–instituted in 1986 by the Anti-Drug Abuse
Act–have helped to fuel the largest public and private prison
construction and operations boom in American history, a phenomenon
which has fairly been described as the evolution of the
No less than 500,000 of the two million human bodies locked away
behind concrete walls and steel bars in America are there because
of drug-related crimes. By comparison, in 1980, the number of drug
offenders doing time from coast to coast was just 50,000. According
to the Bureau of Justice, if recent incarceration rates remain
unchanged, an estimated 1 of every 20 persons will serve
time in a prison during their lifetime.
Nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director
and Best Screenplay, the hit movie has generated heated discussion
about the complexity and the ultimate futility of the U.S.
government’s current seek-out-and-destroy approach to stemming the
drug supply that flows across our borders with impunity. With a
dazzling screenplay written by Stephen Gaghan–who recently
admitted to his own, personal struggles with regular hard drug use
in an interview with the
New York Times–the film offers a compelling,
if sometimes cliched, look at the degradation of drug addiction and
the ultimate incomprehensibility of addressing recreational and
abusive use of drugs with military might and lengthy prison
sentences. (California’s Proposition 36, which will go into effect
on July 1, will finally sentence many first- and second-time drug
offenders to treatment instead of prison.)The new, flashy site,
created by the New York-based non-profit drug policy institute,
Center-Drug Policy Foundation, welcomes visitors with images
from the film and with the greeting: ‘You saw it in Traffic.
30 years of war. 500,000 Americans behind bars. And illegal drugs
are cheaper, purer and easier to get than ever. The government
hasn’t solved our drug problem. Can you?’
According to Lindesmith-DPF, the producers of Traffic were
‘very generous’ and allowed the organization to use the images from
the film for the site.
Visitors to StopTheWar.com are invited to play a game in which they
try to ‘win’ the war on drugs by picking one of three primary
methods currently employed by the government to combat the
seemingly insatiable appetite for drugs in the U.S.: lock up all
drug users and dealers; send money and guns to Mexico and Columbia
to cut off the drug supply; or promote the ‘Just Say No’
drug-abstinence-approach to American teens.
‘Been there. Done that. Didn’t work,’ is the resulting message to
any of the three ‘solutions,’ and it’s one that Ethan Nadelmann,
Executive Director of Lindesmith-DPF hopes that visitors to the
site will begin to consider seriously.
‘The movie got people stirred up and got them thinking,’ says
Nadelmann. ‘We hope to inspire them to get involved …
Traffic could be the Dead Man Walking of drug policy
Other sections of the site offer links to groups working on issues
pertaining to drug policy reform, including the sponsoring
organization’s research on addiction, needle exchange, the
legalization of marijuana, drug treatment and the impact of
incarceration on individuals, families and communities.
‘We hope this campaign will take the dialogue one step further by
letting people know there are alternatives that rely more on common
sense, science, public health and human rights,’ adds
If there’s a dimension of the American drug-and-prison scene that
cries out for more deeper examination on all levels–and one that
remained largely unexamined in Traffic— it’s what amounts
to the brutally racist dimensions of the nation’s war on drugs.Last
year, the leading human rights organization Human Rights Watch
Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in
the War on Drugs, with the first-ever state-by-state
analysis of the role of ethnicity and drugs in prison
‘Punishment and Prejudice’ revealed that African American men are
sent to state prisons on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white
men and that, overall, African Americans comprise 62.7 percent of
drug offenders admitted to state prisons across the country,
although there are five times more white drug users than black drug
Currently, African Americans represent only 13 percent of the
national population, yet in seven states including Illinois, they
constitute between 80 and 90 percent of all people sent to prison
on drug charges.
Statistics like these, urges Deborah Small, Director of Policy for
Lindesmith-DPF, should provoke more Americans to consider the true
impact of the drug war.
And if it takes a major Hollywood hit to make mainstream America
sit up and take notice of how $40 billion of our tax dollars are
being spent each year, Small admits she’s happy something is
having an effect.
‘Perhaps Traffic [will] lead more Americans to ‘just say no’ to the
war on drugs. It’s time we break our national addiction to the
quick fix of using incarceration to address public health problems
like mental illness and substance abuse.’By
Talvi (email@example.com) is a Seattle-based journalist who has
covered criminal justice-related issues for publications ranging
from the Christian Science Monitor to In These Times.