Traffic

by Gary Gordon

     The news about the movie Traffic seems to be this: Sen. Orrin Hatch agreed to be in it as long as it didn't glorify drug-use, and co-stars Michael Douglas and his new wife Catherine Zeta-Jones don't even appear in a scene together.
     But, really, it's a movie about drugs. Well, sort of. The only corrupt cops are Mexican. But there's hand-held camera shots aplenty, so it must be real.
     More about the movie in a moment; let's talk about drugs, the Law, consumers, and dealers.
     Robert told me things got mean in the late 70s. Inspired by a short story in Playboy in '70 or '71 about the dope-dealing pathways between Boston & Berkeley, he dropped out of college and went into business. In 1979, somewhere along the Arizona-Mexico border, there were a lot of guns in a lot of hands aimed all over as the deal went down.
     "It got mean. You had to watch your back. People were gettin' killed. For grass."
     A few years later there was the shoot-out with Jim and Sherry, his ex-partners; Robert was hit in the leg and my friend Anne drove him eighty miles to an emergency center where he could use one of his phony i.d's in a territory he wasn't known.
     This was around the time when the Reagan judges were no longer cutting deals; Robert was out in the cold.
     Other dealers had gone legit, opening all kinds of down-home funky restaurants. Except McCoy and his bunch opened a nightclub instead of a restaurant, stayed in the illegal business, got caught and went to jail. Larry, their part-time carpenter, avoided that snare-he'd just been a flunky anyway. Now he's married, pretty sober, and has a business installing underground lawn watering systems.
     Bill, the lawyer for the dealers, began taking more and more cases that had nothing to do with drugs. Cal switched from dealing drugs to dealing guns-a subject he knew well, having learned about weapons in Vietnam.
     Robert, he just remained an outlaw. Money stashed here and there. He once pointed to a suitcase in the condo in St. Augustine and said in it was $50,000. It reminded me of when Sam, now a wealthy southern businessman, was on his way out of the frat house to close a deal-he handed me $800 and said "If I'm not back in two hours, this is yours." A last will and testament.
     During the last few years of his life Robert found God, gave money to women's organizations for the construction of shelters for battered women, then went nuts and ventured into biker bars on a mission to save prostitutes from the Devil. Bikers would beat the shit out of him. He was a martyr, in his mind.
     "We are all outlaws in the eyes of America," sang the Jefferson Airplane in 1969. The Federal and State drug laws saw to that. Anyone with a joint was a criminal. Joints, it was said, lead to needles; this at a time when napalm was a large part of our arsenal of peace.
     I am like so many others: I spent quite a bit of my life playing music in bars, surrounded by booze, dope, coke and more. Drunks, they get loud, they get mean, they argue the same thing over and over as if they've never said it before, louder and louder as if volume equates to truth. Coke? I watched Robert and Kyle do line after line and talk about politics as I sat after hours in Kyle's bar: their discussion was addled, but fervent. They were full of rapid-fire shit. Eventually Kyle snorted all his profits and lost his bar.
     I used to be the designated driver for Chris and Janice and Shelly-they'd drop acid and we'd do Disneyworld. I dug the Hall of Presidents, they'd freak at the Pirates of the Caribbean and would achieve epiphanies watching a six-foot Mickey wave to kids.
     Chris is now a successful architect in Colorado. Janice went to work for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (obviously her brain had been damaged), Shelly has a family and a boutique. Bill is a judge. Last year Robert put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.
     In '78, when I had long hair and a maroon '67 Mercedes, I was mistaken for Mike, a drug dealer who also had long hair and a maroon '67 Mercedes. I repainted mine blue and cut my hair shorter. I don't know if Mike is still alive.
     At the 20-year reunion of my high school class (of '70) everyone was still alive: no one got killed in Nam, no one died of drugs, alcohol, or AIDs.
     "We are all outlaws in the eyes of America."
     Recently my friend Scott, a political activist who was shot by the police after beating a Conspiracy indictment by the Feds, said this: "Here's the thing about the Drug War. They can't even keep drugs out of the prisons. Think about it."
     Apparently possession of a crack pipe is a crime. When I was called for jury duty two years ago the charge against the man was "possession of drug paraphernalia"-not the drug itself, just the paraphernalia. The judge asked us around ten questions:
     Did I have any friends or relatives who had ever done drugs? Do any have drinking problems? Did I have any friends or relatives who had ever been arrested for drugs? Have any been arrested for other crimes? Did I know any police officers?
     And the kicker: Could I vote to convict on the merits of the case even if I disagreed with the law?
     She might as well have asked if I lived in America. I have known cops and drug-dealers, have counted several among my friends-used to play racquetball with the Chief of Police, had a drug-dealer supply me with a .38 when my life was threatened. I've had friends arrested for drugs, and for evading the draft, and for crossing state lines to incite to riot. And quite a few friends of mine have had drinking problems; some quit.
     I could have been arrested in '71, when the band I was in was driving back from a gig in north Georgia. Not a healthy scene. We're four longhaired musicians deep in the redneck country, on a quiet two-lane blacktop at 3am. We tossed the bag of dope out of the car as we pulled to a stop. The cops searched the embankment but didn't find it and let us go. I could've been arrested a year later when I was riding in Matt's car on Long Island. Matt talked the cop out of anything more than a warning. An arrest in either case would've changed my life, and not for the better. "We are all outlaws in the eyes of America"
     I told the judge I "could" vote to convict, but I said it with the tone of voice that suggested it didn't mean I would. I mean, the man didn't even have any drugs.
     My friend Rick was stopped at the border and almost thrown into a Mexican jail because they found a hash pipe with residue. Residue. And Lisa spent 5 years in a Mexican jail for dope before their authorities finally allowed her parents to buy her release.
     Jenny lost three years of her life, her daughter and her trailer to her coke addiction; now she's back on track, running a small antique shop. Carrie found the only way to beat her addiction to booze and pills was to find the Lord; last time we talked she condemned me for not heeding the Gospels. On the other hand, Bob did acid numerous times, still smokes dope now and then, and is a "productive" member of society, a local businessman with three successful retail businesses to his credit.
     The stories are numerous and endless.
     "Traffic", the new film by Steven Soderbergh, starring Benecio Del Toro and Douglas, is a fine drama that explores some of the hypocricies and corruptions of our war on drugs. It does help to show our war on drugs is ridiculous, but it purports to be much more than it is (as is the case with most Hollywood films that deal with controversial issues). For despite its edgy cinematography, it is soft, and though well-intentioned, it takes a turn into the wrong lane as it does not portray any corrupt American cops, and it really doesn't portray the criminalizing of hundreds of thousands for innocent, harmless recreational drug use. It does not expose the forces behind the Prison Industrial Complex as a major part of the problem. And it cops out near the ending; in real life the Douglas character would have marched on, loyal and obsessed, or, at least, would have resigned in a private meeting with the President or one of his wranglers and not during a press conference.
     Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and their Attorneys General all prosecuted this war, made us outlaws in the eyes of America. Gore stood ready to continue; Dubya will continue.
     The other day on one of the stupid-pundit-shows a stupid pundit declared that the only opposition to Ashcroft was from black civil rights organizations (the tone was: you know, them). Join any political email list and you'll get plenty of information about Ashcroft and the Drug War-but the media whores can't manage to frame that drug war story-maybe 'cause they're all scared their sons and daughters will do what they themselves did. (Actually, it would be a strong argument against dope if it could be shown conclusively that it leads to becoming a sell-out, like Chris Matthews or Jeff Greenfield.)
     And maybe the whole culture is scared. Really, John Grisham over Hunter Thompson? Garth Brooks over Bob Dylan?
     Mario Cuomo used to talk about the need to establish paths to dignity for everyone in our culture. When those paths are established, the use of self-destructive drugs, legal and illegal, will significantly diminish. As for marijuana-- jeez.

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