The real Traffic

(Not starring Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones). Why America's war on drugs is nothing like the movies.
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This is South Central Los Angeles, ground zero of America's war on drugs. The streets are near-deserted, the storefronts long since shuttered and abandoned after the ravages of the 1980s crack-cocaine epidemic and the 1992 LA riots that caused any investment, any faith in the future, to flee the area.

This is South Central Los Angeles, ground zero of America's war on drugs. The streets are near-deserted, the storefronts long since shuttered and abandoned after the ravages of the 1980s crack-cocaine epidemic and the 1992 LA riots that caused any investment, any faith in the future, to flee the area.

At the corner of Avalon and 42nd Street, one forlorn intersection among many, a police patrol car pulls over a puffing maroon Chevy. The occupants, two young black men and one older one, are ordered out and told to kneel on the pavement with their hands above their heads.

It is not clear from a distance exactly what is going on, but the police search the vehicle, and then spend several minutes questioning the men. Eventually they let them all go.

This is the routine, played out time after time, every day in LA's impoverished neighbourhoods. The men in the Chevy got lucky, but many others don't. Not far from this spot, Roderick Forrest, a 44-year-old crack addict, was caught joyriding back in 1998. Because it was his third offence (the other two being petty thefts to feed his habit), he received a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years in prison, and will probably never see his four children or three grandchildren as a free man again.

This, too, is the neighbourhood where Raphael Rayford, another crack addict who is also mentally retarded, was caught stealing 21 packets of aspirin. Again, it was his third offence. He, too, is now behind bars, facing 25 years to life, a sentence that offers no prospect of leniency unless California's strict "three strikes" law - which is overwhelmingly applied against drug addicts and repeat petty offenders - can be reversed.

This is the way the war on drugs in the United States is really going: filling the country's prisons not with big-time dealers or money-launderers, but with small-time users and petty dealers, who come from backgrounds that do not permit the luxury of rehab or counselling sessions. It may not be the war being waged by drug-policy specialists in Washington, or by federal agents trying to infiltrate the powerful Mexican cartels, or by customs officers monitoring the border - the complex battle chronicled in Steven Soderbergh's new film Traffic - but it is the one that has the most immediate, and arguably most corrosive, effect on American society today.

If it is in the inner cities that police generally cruise and pick up impoverished blacks and Latinos, it is because they feel they can. "It's easier to search somebody in the inner city. There are laws that would stop them doing this kind of thing in Beverly Hills, or in a suburb where white middle-class people live," says Melvin Farmer, a veteran of South Central's Crips street gang who now campaigns full-time against what he sees as an inherently racist criminal justice system. (He is also Roderick Forrest's brother-in-law.)

"They say they are looking for drugs or weapons, but that's just a pretext. They know you are on parole. Most people around here are. And that gives them the right to search for anything, any little excuse to send you back to jail and perpetuate the system that keeps them all in work - the cops, the prosecutors, the judges, the prison guards, all of them."

Extreme as that sounds, the figures tend to support Farmer's argument. America has by far the highest per capita prison population of any Western country, with more than two million inmates; almost a quarter of these are behind bars on drug-related charges, a tenfold increase over the past two decades in which the war on drugs has been at its height. The racial make-up of the prison population is so skewed as to be unmissable: in California, African Americans make up 7 per cent of the population, but account for 31 per cent of prison inmates, and 44 per cent of those serving sentences under the "three strikes" law. (Add Latinos, and that last figure jumps to more than 70 per cent.) Roughly five times as many whites use drugs as blacks in America, in line with their population ratios, but blacks are 13 times more likely to be prosecuted.

In South Central and elsewhere, it does indeed feel like a war. Not a war on drugs as such, but a war on people. "My husband didn't have a gun. He didn't do no harm to anyone but himself. They had no right to take his life away," Rod Forrest's wife Stephanie laments. "The police stop people all the time, laying 'em out on the ground. They're picking us up one by one."

One might have thought that a system of criminal justice run amok, and the creation of a vast new criminal underclass were themes the makers of Traffic would have wanted to include in their examination of the drugs trade. Certainly, that was the hope among members of the burgeoning movement that has risen up in opposition to the war on drugs - a movement that cuts a broad swathe, from old-fashioned civil right activists to dis- enchanted conservatives who abhor the government's inhumane squandering of vast resources, and for whom incarceration is the big issue.

But the movie goes nowhere near it. The only drug-users shown in any detail are affluent kids from the suburbs of Cincinnati whose one brush with the law is quickly settled through the quiet intervention of a parent, a state supreme-court judge played by Michael Douglas. At the climax of the film, as Douglas's character heads for Washington to become the new "drugs czar", he makes a telling remark about a war on drugs being a war against our own families. But if he is alluding to the criminal justice system, he is certainly not making the reference obvious.

The anti-drug war campaigners feel torn rather than outraged, because so much of the film seems to them to be so good - in particular, its compelling portrayal of the dilemmas and terrors facing law-enforcement agents on both sides of the US-Mexican border. But beneath their carefully balanced statements lies an unmistakable consternation.

"I think Traffic performs a valuable service in opening up the debate, in making the dilemmas of the drugs czar very real. But I wish they had gone a little further in dramatising the consequences of the war on drugs in the United States," offers Ethan Nadelman, director of the New York-based Lindesmith Center on drug policy, which has been in the forefront of a campaign to offer treatment rather than prison to addicts.

"An opportunity was lost to show people that so much of what they see in the film - the violence, the corruption, the criminal gangs, the overdosing - is a consequence not of drugs per se but of our failed prohibitionist policies."

Off the record, another drugs policy activist put it much more bluntly: "It's a whitewash, frankly. How difficult would it have been to have a character facing life in prison? After all, they managed to work the effects of Nafta [the North American Free Trade Association] in there, so why not the criminalisation of addicts?"

The response of the film-makers is that they thought about including a story-line about the criminal justice system, but couldn't make it work dramatically without coming across as too didactic. It did not help that they were working from a source, Simon Moore's Channel 4 series Traffik, that had no way of addressing the theme because it was not set in the United States. Nevertheless, choosing to focus on a white middle-class cocaine and heroin user, and making her the daughter of the man put in charge of the nation's drug enforcement policies, was a provocative choice in itself, according to Traffic's producer, Laura Bickford.

"We wanted to show that this problem is in everybody's house," she says. "There is an attitude in America that if I do something it's OK, but if you do it, you go to jail. We wanted to say to audiences: you think it's just black and Latino kids who take drugs, well hey, your kids are doing it, too."

There was, of course, another consideration - which, to her credit, Bickford is willing to concede - and that was the need to recoup the film's $45m budget. The producers were already concerned about the commercial wisdom of shooting the Mexi-can segment of the film in Spanish - although it turns out that that was the part of the film that trial audiences found most fascinating, precisely because it provided a window on to an unfamiliar world.

Would the realities of the US prison system have turned off Middle American audiences? Or was there genuinely no room to explore another massively complicated subject?

"We didn't set out to make the most all-encompassing film we could. The challenge was to adapt a piece of material that was already very big for the format of a feature film," says Tim Golden, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with The New York Times who acted as a consultant on the film and whose investigations of Mexico's drug cartels formed the basis of much of the Tijuana plotline. "It doesn't try to be the definitive movie about drugs. But it does try to tell the story of a system, one in which there's a logic to what all the individuals do, but the system as a whole doesn't work."

That logic appears to be in evidence everywhere in the criminal justice system, as are its internal contradictions. In many states, politicians will pass draconian sentencing laws because being "tough on crime" wins votes; and prosecutors and judges will enforce them because they, too, have to face re-election every four years. The war on drugs, in fact, is predicated on the notion that enforcement is the answer.

The problem is, when you venture outside, that it clearly isn't. It would be one thing if the massive sums spent on interdiction and criminal justice efforts - somewhere between $20bn and $60bn per year, depending on what you include - were eradicating drugs in American society, but they are not. Over the past 20 years, the street price of hard drugs has plummeted as supply has vastly increased, and the purity of cocaine or heroin now available to the average teenager is higher than it has ever been.

It is not just in feature films that public officials in the war on drugs are finding the problem coming home to roost. A couple of years ago, voters in Orange, the most hardline conservative county in California, tossed out their district attorney because even they could not stomach a system that sent addicts to prison for life for stealing a pack of batteries or, as in one notorious case, a slice of pepperoni pizza. But if they were wondering why the new DA was so much more lenient, they did not have to wonder long. Last year, his son was arrested after he was found smoking crack stark naked outside a trailer home, and his daughter-in-law was hauled through the courts for drink-driving.

Officials further up the line have faced similar domestic traumas, without necessarily being able to influence public policy. One of California's leading Republicans, Scott Baugh, admitted a couple of years ago that his brother was a methamphetamine addict and set about trying to soften the three-strikes law. But then Baugh was appointed party minority leader in the state assembly and - apparently under overwhelming pressure - reverted to the old tough-on-crime rhetoric. He has since left politics.

In the new Washington of President George W Bush, it is unclear what direction the issue will take. The old drugs czar, Barry McCaffrey, has resigned and nobody has yet been nominated to take his place. Colin Powell, the new Secretary of State, has argued that the war on drugs can never been won simply by cutting off supply and arresting users, but who knows if the President will listen to him.

A measure of the obstinate political mood came during the filming of Traffic, when real-life politicians, journalists and drugs experts were invited to interact with Michael Douglas's character and offer him advice. Orrin Hatch, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, leaned over and told him: "This is a dirty little war with dirty little people in dirty little cities." To spare Mr Hatch subsequent embarrassment, the film-makers decided to cut that line out.