Supply & Demand: Drug Trade’s Virulent Affect on Social Classes
In Steven Soderbergh’s film Traffic, America’s illicit drug problem is examined through a series of intersecting storylines that view it as a business, a war, a high-level social a criminal activity and a painful family trauma. In the film, Soderbergh attempts to reveal that “with all these situations, somebody’s connection to the world of drugs, whether its through selling, using, or policing, brings them into something that is bigger than they are. ” That “something” refers to the U. S. -Mexican drug war.
As perceived by the general public in America, the drug trade is made out to be a misfortunate lower-class dilemma. However, the film’s presentation of the drug trade reveals a much more comprehensive analysis that entails all classes in society. Traffic shows how the drug war is being waged from different fronts, how it crosses socio-economic lines, and how the consequences of the drug trade affect all those involved. As the lives of various people, from a wealthy drug baron living in upscale, suburban America to the U. S. President’s new drug czar, become intertwined, Traffic reveals that the illegal drug trade is a universal problem. Traffic gives an illuminating, although disturbing, depiction of the real world in which the drug trade embroils people of all classes. Furthermore, the film exposes the fundamental interplay between drugs’ supply/demand and social class. By presenting the film through a series of muddled accounts, Soderbergh displays the complex links at play in the illegal U. S. -Mexican drug trade.
Lacking a single plot, Traffic zooms in on three locations: Tijuana, Mexico, La Jolla, California, and the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio. As the lives of the various characters unfold in the film, the vignettes eventually add up to an identifiable conclusion- players of all classes play distinct roles in the ongoing American drug war. However, to understand the complexities of the real world drug trade, it is important to understand the workings of social class in the supply and consequent demand for drugs.
These complexities involve the drug cartels and trafficking, the “war on drugs,” and the family traumas, all which contribute to the presence of social class in the drug trade. Traffic not only reveals the complexities but also argues that these complexities will remain as long as the supply of drugs persists. By exposing the supply-side of the drug trade, Traffic reveals the intricate ties that too often are not exposed or simply dismissed by the American public. One such tie pertains to the drug baron and his inner-circle of associates on both sides of the border.
In reality, the public commonly affiliates druglords with a lower class background. . Furthermore, the perception exists that druglords’ only escape from destitution is through the illicit drug trade. However, Traffic offers a rude awakening to many oblivious Americans. Traffic focuses closely on the tragic quality of corruption and corruptibility, and on the destructive power of ambition by establishing the fundamental problem of fighting against invisible and untouchable drug warlords, who have large budgets and arms with which to secure their empires.
The films portrayal of a wealthy drug baron from La Jolla, California, an upper-class suburban neighborhood, dismisses the preconceived notions of America’s “classic” druglords. The film’s depiction of the druglord is only one aspect of the supply-side that distorts social class involvement in drug trafficking. The U. S. government’s aggressive efforts to crack down on illegal drug use, know as the “war on drugs” also plays an important role in the supply of drugs in America.
The drug battle, however, is nothing new in America and in fact dates back to the 1970s when President Richard Nixon launched an official “war on drugs. “1 Since the drug war has been scrutinized for a few decades now, Traffic’s portrayal of drug trafficking may seem repetitive or unoriginal at first; however, the film goes one step further by explaining the ineffectiveness of such a drug war. Traffic is the first mainstream, major Hollywood production that gives an illuminating, although troubling, depiction of the drug war’s ineffectiveness at mitigating usage.
Traffic does this, according to screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, by depicting the “war on drugs” as “a health issue, not a criminal issue” with social class implications. 2 By presenting an irony in which the nation’ new “drug czar (Michael Douglas) has no idea his own teenage daughter (Erika Christensen) is inhaling crack at preppie high school parties in the Cincinnati suburbs, Traffic demonstrates that drug trafficking is a social problem affecting individuals of all classes. The film similarly introduces the demand-side of the drug trade and its social class implications.
Traffic’s portrayal of demand and availability creates the notion that the “war on drugs’ is a useless battle, which will inevitably result in failure. With the strong supply of drugs showing no sign of declining, many teenagers, especially upper-class students, dabble into drug uses. Christensen, Douglas’ daughter, reveals why drugs are so enticing for affluent high school student, “For someone my age, it’s a lot easier for people to get drugs than it is to get alcohol. ” Traffic documents the process by which high school-aged honor students begin sampling drugs.
With enough money to continue their drug infatuation, pot-smoking teenagers can easily turn to more detrimental drugs, such as speedballs (a mixture of cocaine and heroin), and in absurdly short time become full-fledged crack addicts at the mercy of greedy African-American drug dealers. Although not all cases evolve to fit this mold, the movie manages to bring in the fears that envelop drug war zealots and the “gateway drug” theory, which states that pot eventually leads to the use of more harmful drugs.
Recognizing that the drug trade is already perceived as a lower class problem, Traffic shifts away from this conception by profiling the lives of the upper class and their role in the drug trade. The film’s message is clearly direct towards families of the upper-middle classes. In particular, drug experimentation, depicted as an upper-class interest, leads Michael Douglas to dejectedly proclaim, “If there is a war on drugs, then many of our family members are the enemy. And I don’t know how you wage war on your own family. This overall acknowledgment of failure, that absolutely nothing in the system works, proposes a bleak reality where the evil of drugs impact all classes-from the lower class drug dealers (suppliers) to the rich high school preps of the upper class (demanders). Traffic, however, leaves several questions unanswered. By failing to provide a solution to the class-based supply/demand drug trade, which it presents, Traffic causes one to wonder what the next step for the “war on drugs” will be.
An eloquently stunning moment in the film occurs when Michael Douglas, a distraught father and newly appointed drug “czar,” headed back to Washington after a fact-finding mission in Mexico, asks his policy experts whether they have any new ideas or strategies, “I want everyone thinking out of the box in the next few minutes… I want to here from everyone- customs, FBI, treatment… right now the door is open for new ideas? ” Douglas’ invitation is met by a deafening silence.
The film, serving as a catalyst, exposes the dire class dimensions of the drug trade and forces the public to realize the severity of the current situation. Indeed, Traffic raises some interesting points that the “war on drugs” is essentially useless in ending the class-based supply/demand drug trade. However, how accurately is Traffic’s presentation of the real world? In spite of the added drama associated with a major blockbuster film, Traffic offers a credible account of America’s failing “war on drugs”.
By the US Federal Government’s own estimates, the entire United States consumption of illegal drugs could be supplied by approximately one percent of the worldwide drug crop. In their best year, US Drug Enforcement Agents working together with foreign governments seized about one percent of the worldwide drug crop, leaving 99 percent free to supply the US. What’s more, any examination of the statistics regarding border interdiction shows quite clearly that border interdiction is an expensive failure, and in 1990, the General Accounting Office completed a major study on border interdiction.
The study revealed that border interdiction was a waste of money and that no conceivable increase in funding or effort would improve its effectiveness. 3 So with no way to stop, or even greatly reduce, either production of drugs in foreign countries or the smuggling of drugs into the US, what can be done? Traffic hints that the only way to alleviate America’s drug problem is by deterring demand. At the end of the film, Douglas accompanies his daughter to a rehabilitation clinic and states that “my wife, Barbara, and I are here to support our daughter, Caroline, and we’re here to listen.
Traffic sends the message that with increased efforts to dissuade high school students and inform families of the danger involved, America’s “war on drugs” can reduce the high demand of high school and college students, mainly from well-to-do backgrounds. The film argues both implicitly and explicitly that going after the suppliers and the drug traffickers, where the U. S. spends the bulk of its annual budget, simply doesn’t work, that it kills innocents and turns others into criminals, devastates poor neighborhoods, cannot completely cease illicit drug use.
As director Steven Soderberg states, “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. ” Traffic is by no means a perfect film, but it does provide a huge potential opening to expand popular consciousness of the evils of the class-related drug war and the search for better answers.