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Commentary

Traffic’s Lessons


     
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Hollywood movies are not widely noted for their educational value. But in a searing depiction of drug trafficking and the war on drugs, the movie Traffic teaches much about the folly of drug prohibition. Although Traffic did not win the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year; it deserves the title Most Important Picture of the Year.

Lesson 1: Prohibition, not drug consumption, causes the violence often attributed to drugs. Traffic’s rival Mexican drug organizations resort to cold-blooded murder because unlike ordinary business firms they have no legal, non-violent means to resolve disputes. In the United States, the murder rate skyrocketed during alcohol prohibition but fell once prohibition ended. Statistical research suggests that eliminating drug prohibition in the United States today would reduce the murder rate by 50 percent.

Lesson 2: Prohibition fosters corruption. Although many American and Mexican law-enforcement officers are beyond reproach, financial temptation will weaken some officers’ and politicians’ resolve to play by the rules. Drug money corrupts, as police scandals in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Washington show only too well. The situation is even worse in developing countries where wages are much lower than in the United States and the threat of violence against honest judges and politicians is frighteningly real.

Lesson 3: Prohibition enriches criminals at the expense of society generally. In Traffic, honest Mexican and American cops can afford only modest lifestyles, but fictional drug kingpin Carlos Ayala lives in a plush seaside mansion near San Diego. No hardworking American would object if he earned this lifestyle through honest work, but prohibition increases the wages of sin.

Lesson 4: Prohibition promotes violence and corruption in drug-producing countries while ensuring the viability of political insurgents, who sell protective services to traffickers. Notwithstanding Mexican President Vicente Fox’s recent "trial balloon" announcement that we would enjoy less violence and corruption if drugs were legalized, the specter of international condemnation renders this possibility academic.

Lesson 5: Prohibition exacerbates racial conflict, since enforcement inevitably targets minorities even when drug use and trafficking pervade all elements of society. As one sassy teen in Traffic says, law-enforcement comes down more heavily on the politically and socially disenfranchised, and the drugs they use.

Mid-Term Exam: What are some evils of prohibition beyond those highlighted in Traffic?

Answer: Prohibition diverts police resources from deterring other kinds of crime. If we ended the war on drugs, we could devote many more police, prosecutors, judges and jailers to the apprehension, conviction and incarceration of criminals who commit violent crimes against body and property.

Prohibition causes overdoses and accidental poisonings because quality control is poor in underground markets. Prohibition prevents the use of marijuana as medicine, although more potent drugs like cocaine and morphine can be legally prescribed. Prohibition increases the spread of AIDS by discouraging the legal sale of clean needles.

Prohibition destroys respect for the law because, despite draconian enforcement, drug law violations are rampant, leading many to believe that compliance with the law is for suckers. And prohibition costs tens of billions of dollars each year for police, prisons, and the like.

Final Exam: What should be done?

Answer: Make drugs legal again. Before 1914, when federal law first criminalized drugs, many persons used drugs, and some suffered ill effects. But this was a problem mainly for users, their families, and their doctors, not a social problem of immense proportions.

If drugs were re-legalized, there would still be problems related to drug use, and use would probably increase. But in a free society individuals get to make their own choices, good or bad. And the reduced violence and corruption, along with the other benefits of legalization, would accrue to all elements of society, drug using or not.

No one – especially not those involved in law enforcement or drug policy – believes we can "win" the war on drugs. Even with state-of-the art technology, a U.S. drug enforcement officer at the Mexican border tells Traffic’s American drug czar, played by actor Michael Douglas, that their resources don’t come close to those of the Mexican drug lords. Traffic’s important achievement has been to popularize truths about the war on drugs that many in Washington know, but few have the courage to acknowledge.


Jeffrey A. Miron is Senior Lecturer of Economics at Harvard University. Research Fellow at The Independent Institute; and President, Bastiat Institute, Wellesley, MA.

A version of Prof. Miron’s commentary was published on March 25, 2001 in the Orange County Register, the Record (N.J.), and The San Diego Union-Tribune.






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