Stopping Traffik: The War Against the War on Drugs
(CBC — October 1999)
Logline: “Whether it’s alcohol Prohibition or the War on Drugs, any zealous crusade is bound to have unintended consequences. Watch what happens when frontline cops, social workers, and wealthy businessmen join forces to oppose the drug war.”
The war on drugs had nothing to do with me. Or so I thought until we made a documentary called Stopping Traffik. Now I realize this blood-drenched jihad affects nearly every taxpayer and citizen in the modern world. We all pay for a junkie’s fix because the cost of every item shoplifted to support a drug habit is factored in to the retail price of the goods we buy. The cost of drug-induced burglaries is factored in to our insurance premiums. One way or another we all fork out money to “the drugs industry” which includes not just the junkies and dealers but the cops, courts and prisons along with the hospitals and rehab centres that treat those caught in the crossfire. Even if we don’t know a single addict (but the vast majority of us do) we still pay. So everyone has a role in this drama, like it or not.
In making the film I learned that legislated morality and prohibition have always failed. Never in the history of human civilization has there been a drug-free or alcohol-free society. People have always needed some kind of candy to get them through the night. The wealthy, of course, can buy their drugs of choice (whether alcohol or designer anti-depressants) legally; the poor must resort to other means. A medical problem has been recast as crime, as moral failure. But alcohol Prohibition—one of the most painful episodes in North American history—demonstrated clearly that the criminal justice system cannot stop the traffik.
This story came to my attention thanks to Terry McKeown, a friend (and colleague and producing partner) who’d noticed a series of local news items about a Vancouver city cop who had spoken out publicly against the drug war. Constable Gil Puder had chased a bank robber down an alley into the back of a fast-food restaurant where a gun was drawn. The robber—desperate for a fix and holding a bag of cash—aimed his weapon (a convincing fake) at Puder who shot him dead.
For a time afterward Puder felt heartsick about killing a pathetic creature who only wanted shelter from the cold. A lost soul who desperately needed the warm blanket of a drug that happened to be illegal. The constable brooded for a while, then did his research and decided something had to change.
He became, in essence, a conscientious objector to the drug war and an outspoken member of the nascent Harm Reduction Movement that aims to treat addiction as a medical problem rather than a crime. Joining this humanitarian group landed Puder in a jackpot with Vancouver PD brass but he had convinced himself he was doing the right thing and he refused to flinch. Puder had joined ranks with other cops and social workers around the world who felt the same way. The Harm Reduction campaign created an unlikely and fascinating coalition of people who were miles apart politically and had absolutely nothing else in common.
Joe McNamara, for example, was a third-generation New York City cop who went to Harvard for a PhD, became the chief of police in Kansas City, and later was hired as top cop in San Jose, California. When city hall informed McNamara he’d have to cover the capital cost of his police budget (the uniforms, patrol cars, guns and bullets, etc.) with money and property seized from drug dealers, he quit in disgust and became a senior research fellow at Stanford University’s conservative think tank, the Hoover Institute.
There he began writing articles and books documenting hundreds and eventually thousands of similar examples of conflict of interest and drug-war corruption that had, in his opinion, ruined a once-honourable profession. On-camera McNamara made his point with a stunning example that I’ve never forgotten. He picked up a cheap ballpoint pen from his desk and said:
“If I could manufacture this pen for one dollar—and I could sell it for $17,000—all of the cops and armies and prisons in the world couldn’t stop that industry. And that’s the mark-up for illegal drugs. That’s the ‘Prohibition price.’ If the drugs were legal and they cost about a buck, you could buy them for a dollar or two. But because we made them illegal, the drug pushers—the producers—can get 17,000% profit…
“Now that money has gone to finance drug armies, to corrupt governments—including our own governments—country after country throughout the world. And if you step back and you look at this, you have to say: How can we do this? Why are we so irrational?
“And the answer to that is: We are thinking about this in religious terms, and we’re thinking about it in moral terms. About a century ago a group of religious zealots began to lobby Congress to get opium outlawed because they thought it was sinful for people to get high on this drug. And when you get someone’s version of sin put into the Penal Code, bad things happen…
“What is so terrible if someone wants to smoke a marijuana cigarette to get high? …Why should we put them in jail while I can enjoy a glass of wine or a beer? There’s no answer to that that stands up to daylight. The thing that’s kept us captive is that stereotype—that idea planted by religious groups a century ago—that anyone who does this is bad.”
Evidently we have forgotten the abject failure of alcohol prohibition. McNamara wants us to remember:
“What America essentially did in 1914 was, they took a social and medical problem and they made it a crime problem—and it’s called Prohibition. We had prohibition of alcohol from 1920 to 1933. And the same thing happened: enormous corruption, violence, and disrespect for the law. And people still used alcohol. But we didn’t learn from that.”
Before Prohibition, Al Capone was a two-bit pimp on the south side of Chicago. When beer and liquor were outlawed, Capone morphed into a murderous gangster. Legislated morality made him filthy rich. The unintended consequence of Prohibition was organized crime. With the drug war, there’s a new and decidedly nasty twist, according to Joe McNamara:
“In the drug war, the cops are the gangsters—in uniform, sometimes, on duty in city after city, committing armed robberies, stealing drugs, selling drugs, framing people—even murders…
“And it’s covered up by the code of silence that exists in the police world. And that code will always exist. We have to face that. We can condemn it; we can try to minimize it. But it will always exist. And unfortunately, even the honest cops don’t report other cops.”
The solution to this madness? Beat the gangsters at their own game.
Dirk Chase Eldredge was co-chairman of Ronald Reagan’s successful campaign to become governor of California. When I interviewed him for Stopping Traffik, Eldredge was keen to put himself in context right up front:
“I am not an aging hippie or a liberal academic. I am a white, conservative Republican… [director of a bank, a successful entrepreneur…] married to the same woman for over forty years… with six grandchildren…”
When Reagan moved from Sacramento to the White House and declared war on drugs, Eldredge at first supported—then turned vehemently against—his hero’s crusade. Eldredge wrote a book—a detailed plan for how drugs could be legalized and controlled through state-owned stores much like alcohol has been controlled in Canada and elsewhere.
The price of drugs would be set initially at half the black-market rate to undercut the drug mafias and take the profits out of trafficking. If that wasn’t enough, the government could easily cut the price by half again—whatever it takes to drive the cartels out of business. With a 17,000 percent profit margin the government would still have enough money left to fund a massive drug prevention and addiction treatment program. Treatment on demand, anywhere, any time. No waiting.
And, says Eldridge, with an advertising budget equal to or greater than the Big Three automakers combined, a national campaign could be mounted to convince people that drugs, like cigarettes, are deadly. He cites the anti-smoking campaign as the most successful anti-drug offensive ever conceived.
Would this eliminate the illegal trade? No. Not entirely, but it couldn’t be any worse than what we’re doing now. Joe McNamara agrees with Dirk Eldredge:
“Certainly the drug war is not a panacea for stopping drug crime and drug use. And legalizing drugs is not a panacea either. We had a drug problem before criminalizing drugs; we’ll have one after…
“Will we totally eliminate the black market? No, because you still have a black market in alcohol and cigarettes—because of the high tax rates. But what you will eliminate is organized crime. And you will eliminate the predatory crime that drug users commit to get money for their drugs…”
And there are other unlikely allies in this war against the war on drugs.
George Soros escaped Nazi persecution in Hungary, graduated from the London School of Economics in 1956, immigrated to the United States and made his fortune as an investment dealer and currency trader in New York. A man who understands money and the irresistible forces of a free-market better than most, Soros argues that any version of prohibition ignores fundamental economic principles:
“As long as demand and profits are high, there is no way to cut off supply.”
Soros is convinced that a drug-free America is “a utopian dream.” Success as a businessman has given him the freedom to say what he thinks without having to worry about the next election.
“For a politician to touch the drug issue is touching the third rail… But I’m willing to expose myself because—on an issue like drugs—very few people are in a position to take the abuse that I’ve taken.”
Soros has done more than talk the talk. As a philanthropist he has donated millions of dollars to support and promote the Harm Reduction movement—the common sense alternative to prohibition.
A more humanitarian treatment of addicts might also address the overtly racist aspects of the drug war, according to Joe McNamara:
“To get the evidence the police have started searching people illegally—and mostly blacks. We’ve heard the term ‘driving while black’—racial profiling. It has had a devastating impact on the trust of minorities in America on the police…
“The answer that the federal government gives is: ‘Yeah, sure, blacks and Latinos are arrested a lot more than whites are, but that’s because they buy their drugs outdoors and they’re easier for the police to arrest…
“What we have done is so enormously wrong… I come from a family of cops. I hate to see this happening… The police have been put into a war they can’t win, a war they didn’t start, that has led to this kind of police crime. And that’s why it’s important for me to expose this—in the hope of helping all the decent and dedicated cops in getting the politicians to recognize that the police can never solve the drug problem.”
One other important lesson (for me personally) from this film was: don’t bother preaching to the choir. I started with no particular opinion about the drug war, mainly because I’d paid it so little attention and knew so little about what was happening. There were times when I wondered whether telling the story from a single point-of-view (those who oppose the drug war) was fair. But we talked it over and decided that because so much of the mainstream media’s coverage of the story has favoured or glorified the drug war, all we were doing was redressing the balance a bit. I still didn’t want it to be a rant (why should my opinion as a filmmaker count for anything?) and hoped the main characters in the film could make their own case. The logic and credibility of their arguments would have to stand or fall on their own merits.
Much to my surprise, that’s exactly what happened. A few days after Stopping Traffik was first broadcast, a local businessman approached my wife on the street and told her that the film had completely changed his mind. Here was a very conservative, small-town entrepreneur whose first instinct was to trust what the police and other drug warriors had said. But now the people in our film had turned his head around 180 degrees on the issue. He was amazed. And so were we.