Breaking the Taboo, a documentary made by the son of Richard Branson and other people with less famous dads, and featuring the sublime tones of Morgan Freeman, loosely follows the Global Commission on Drug Policy as its members investigate and report on the impact of drug policy on communities around the world. If you’ve seen a drug war film, you’ll be familiar with many of the initial images of Breaking the Taboo. We see people in wheelchairs crippled by their drug use, people who’ve had relatives kidnapped by cartels. We’re told the US has 5% of the world’s population, 25% of the world’s prisoners. We’re informed that more drug addicts come out of prison than go in.
But the number of former politicians is overwhelming and probably this film’s greatest contribution to an increasingly crowded field. The former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, Switzerland and Mexico, as well as the current President of Colombia, all make appearances to explain why we must legalise and regulate drugs. The former President of Switzerland in particular makes a well-worn phrase original again: “You cannot make a war against drugs without knowing you are also making a war against people”. Former US President Bill Clinton at one point says of the drug war, simply: “it hasn’t worked”.
The first half of the film is a quick run-through of the ins and outs of the drug war, from its origins in the 60s, over to the problems in the producer countries, and back to the prison industrial complex in America and the emphasis on enforcement over treatment. It was great to unexpectedly see some time spent on the opium trade in Afghanistan, though I was surprised to see General Sir Richard Dannett, formerly Chief of the General Staff, make a clear link between Western involvement in trying to suppress it and the subsequent strengthening of the insurgency as farmers lost their livelihoods. It was intriguing to learn that it’s actually Russia that is pushing poppy eradication in Afghanistan, much harder than the US (especially considering as the Russian success in reducing the country’s access to heroin has resulted in the rise of krokodil, a homebrew of iodine and codeine which is literally rotting people’s limbs off).
There’s a lot of time spent on the American experience, which I assume to be partly due to America’s historical role in and enthusiasm for the drug war (as one guy who wryly noted: “[America has] more prisoners than China, and they have a billion more people than we do.”), and partly aimed at mobilising an American audience to rally their recalcitrant politicians to stop bullying other nations into dealing with “the drug problem” for them. It is striking to watch the historical footage of Presidents such as Reagan and Nixon talk about the dangers of drugs and what they can do to you, when the current president has freely admitting to using cocaine at college, and the previous one pointedly refused to comment on allegations that he did the same. What a different world we live in from even twenty years ago ago when Bill Clinton had to resort to tenuous legalese in order to pretend he hadn’t used cannabis.
The second half of the film starts moving towards suggested solutions. We see Portugal’s decriminalisation policy and Switzerland’s heroin prescription programme. I actually thought this part was quite weak, especially as the former Portuguese Drug Policy Coordinator talked about creating “clear signs of disapproval for drug use” as he describes the drug panels that users have to face if caught. Recreational use doesn’t get a look-in, though it makes up the majority of use. However, we also see Holland and its notorious coffee shops. Holland’s policy allowing effectively legalised cannabis-trading on small premises has led to Amsterdam being considered to be the cannabis Mecca of the world, but the universal policy of “no hard drugs” hardly deals with, well, all the drugs that aren’t cannabis. I doubt we’ll be seeing MDMA coffeeshops coming to a street near you anytime soon.
This disjointed approach to drug policy, talking about decriminalising a bit here, instituting a rehabilition programme there, leaves one feeling a bit dissatisfied until ten minutes just before the end, when suddenly various of the great and the good, including the serving President of Colombia, call for all drugs – not some, but all – to be regulated like alcohol and tobacco. Now THAT is breaking the taboo. That is moving the debate onward. I hope that as a result of this film, we can keep moving.
For the most part, this film is a great overview of the drug war, although it misses some things. Any mention of Africa, Southeast Asia or the Carribean, for example, despite the major roles all these places play in global drug trafficking routes. Apparently George Bush’s eight years as the leader of the drug war have gone from our collective memories, as the film neatly skips from Clinton to Obama repeatedly. And Morgan Freeman’s narration over sweeping tracking shots of riots and police operations made me feel at times like I was watching the inner workings of Shawshank but without the warming human resolution (though Morgan Freeman’s past Academy Award-winning performances are hardly the producers’ fault).
I’ve seen higher-quality drug war films: Cocaine Unwrapped‘s in-depth study of the cocaine trade brought me to tears, and The Union: the Business Behind Getting High gave the most rational, compelling explanation for how the cannabis industry supports national economies I have ever seen. But what Breaking the Taboo lacks in cinematic magic, it makes up for in the sheer number of former statesmen and women willing to stand up and say “I fought this war, and I regret it”. Perhaps that, more than anything, will start shattering political and public resistance to what, on watching films like these, should be a very obvious conclusion. Legalise it, legalise it now, and legalise it all.
You can view Breaking the Taboo here.