Breaking the Taboo – A Review

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”.

You just can’t win a war against people willing to build submarines to smuggle drugs into your country.

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.

I look forward to seeing you on the next march!

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.

Attitudes need to be changed towards hard drugs

It is desperately sad that sometimes our own supporters rely on a slippery slope argument mentality; that if we legalise marijuana today, maybe ketamine or MDMA will be next. This is the very thing that our witless and moralistic opponents use to thwart these grassroots efforts pertaining to the legalisation of “soft drugs” such as cannabis and MDMA. Though decriminalisation would only be a stopping point towards a penultimate goal of outright legalisation and regulation of all narcotic substances, it presents itself as a shimmering ray of hope to many of us and perhaps is the only way our agenda will be accomplished; a painful and grinding war of attrition with morally outraged ignorance intentionally inspired by insidious profiteering forces which benefit from drugs remaining illegal. The illicit drug trade is the second largest sector of the entire world’s economy; the largest segment of which consists of cannabis but the most destructive is heroin and cocaine. The movement to legalise drugs has to be waged on the very two fronts that the prohibitionists have; morally as well as socio-politically. In other words, stigma against all drug use, whether it be the smoking of cannabis or the intravenous injection of heroin and crack cocaine needs to be done away with totally. This can only be accomplished by shredding away the garb of irrationality and ignorance that prohibitionists have proliferated to blind us all.

Not so many people driving around in “legalise heroin” buses.

My heart goes out to those who genuinely back this detestable war because of a vague and misguided desire to better the world. They are simply enslaved by a divisive and  devious campaign set in place to protect the status quo. This becomes evident when we look at the reverse of the establishment. Take the pharmaceutical industry for instance; which in essence has a financial choke hold over the US government which ensures that many truly harmful substances be wrongfully prescribed to unwitting patients. Take for instance the pandemic of benzodiazepine addiction facilitated by mass media advertising campaigns marketing Valium, then Ativan, then Xanax as effective ‘cures’ for anxiety. These drugs are known and admitted by most in the psychiatric profession to be far more addictive than many illegal drugs including heroin. SSRIs (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, typically used as antidepressants)  are causing a surge in teen suicide rates as well as a generation of people, enslaved to substances that the government deems legal for reasons none other than profit. For instance, the manufacturers of Prozac or Fluoxetine managed to lobby the US food and drug administration to outlaw the sale of L-tyrosine (a health supplement with similar anti-depressant qualities minus any perceivable side effects). Let’s not forget the wave of teenage suicides that the over prescription of Prozac instigated. Meanwhile, children as young as 5 are being prescribed Ritalin by the bucketload,a chemical similar in its structure and pharmacokinetics to cocaine, a Schedule 1 substance in the USA. The level of hypocrisy is disgustingly self-evident.

It has also become obvious that the US is not only allowing but sanctioning heroin production in Afghanistan, whilst locking up street addicts in their own land for possession of grams of severely adulterated heroin, bad for their health by virtue of the ridiculous amounts of violin cleaner, caffeine and paracetamol that it is cut with. The war on drugs is also used as a convenient excuse to back wars overseas such as that against Panama’s Noriega regime. Manuel Noriega who was put in cahoots with Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel and done away with on the premise that he was aiding the importation of tons and tons of cocaine into the US. Now, whether it is coincidental or not, it is evident that drugs have directly funded US led global imperialism. It also reaps the benefits off the backs of its own citizens back home by using the very drugs they supposedly do not want in their country to repress minority groups; look at the proliferation of PCP then Crack Cocaine among the African American population across the country.

A wrap of heroin. Or dust. Who knows.

This acquaints us with the global hegemonic forces we are up against if we are to go ahead with decriminalisation let alone legalisation and regulation of all drugs; first of all, the private prison companies like Serco will be up in arms as most of their non violent drug related offenders will no longer be locked up providing them with what is effectively slave labour (the maximum prisoner’s wage in this country is £20 a week). Thankfully, it seem that this very system of oppression is crumbling economically, as it is bears witness to the backlash of its promises to rid society of a non-existent scourge that  supposedly threatens us enough to warrant £3 billion that could go towards education and social services which would prevent disenfranchised and angry teenagers from ever having that first toke on the crackpipe in council estates across the country.

Decriminalisation would simply not be enough as it would effectively allow the lucrative black market to continue doing the very things that drug policy conservatives reel at.  The many arguments they posit like the “gateway drug” theory are products of their policy. Althought the majority of drug dealers specialise in one type of drug, less scrupulous dealers are one stop shops selling everything from cannabis to heroin. Those people really do have an incentive to get people addicted to “harder” substances like heroin. One great example of this is the £5 discount most crack and heroin dealers put on buying a dose of each. This serves to get recreational crack smokers physically addicted to heroin in order to ensure their custom.

Lastly, the glamour of drug-taking for some people will simply disappear over time should they become legal commodities just like alcohol and tobacco. Portugal is a good example, its previous heroin pandemic in the 90s has turned into one of the best examples of state-run rehabilitation since all drugs were decriminalised in the country. History also bears us innumerable examples; during the American prohibition more alcohol was consumed per capita than at any other juncture in history since then until the present day.

A drug raid, 1920s style.

The final argument for total legalization lies in human rights: farmers in Afghanistan and the Golden triangle can continue to support their families to a better degree as the extortionate middle men are brought out of the picture; allowing for effectively fair-trade cocaine and heroin. Furthermore, people from abusive families who turn to drugs for solace or simply those who are exploratory and curious will no longer be subject to persecution both legal and societal by their peers.

Attitudes need to be changed towards hard drugs just as they recently have towards soft drugs. This is where Re:Vision’s challenge truly lies in my opinion. Winning over the hearts and minds of the populace. The drug law reform movement has already tried appealing to their sense of logic and pragmatism and that has been to some avail, but there is more work to do.

Update: Breaking the Taboo and Other News

Dear drug law reformers,

today sees the online premiere of the ground-breaking Breaking the Taboo, a documentary about the drug war. Featuring prominent statesmen including Presidents Clinton and Carter, the film follows the Global Commission on Drug Policy on a mission to break the political taboo and expose the biggest failure of global policy in the last 50 years.

Another film about how the drug war is a failure will not be new to many of us, but this is one of the first times that so many public and political figures have been willing to admit that the project that they themselves in many cases worked on has been a failure and that we need something different. Coming on top of the first referenda in the world to legalise cannabis by public mandate in Colorado and Washington, we can finally see the cracks in Prohibition starting to cave in. Inspired or spurred on by the referenda, numerous other states are now looking at a range of other solutions, including Uruguay”s proposed state monopoly of cannabis.

You can watch Breaking the Taboo here.

Our review is here.

The House I Live In

If you haven”t had your fill of celebrity-studded award-winning gritty documentaries about the drug war, The House I Live In, sponsored by Brad Pitt and Danny Glover and directed by Eugene Jarecki, will be airing with a Panel Q&A following at the Oval in London on the 11th December. Tickets are on sale here.

Some Re:Vision folks will be going, so please get in touch if you are too and would like to meet up.

On the Blog

Finally, our latest blogposts:

* The Royal Baby and Drug Policy

* Attitudes need to be Changed Towards Hard Drugs

* Drug Decriminalisation: a Good Idea, but Not Enough

* Drugs on Trial Live Vs the Real Scandal of Modern Medicine