The Washington Post
Health Section
April 10, 2001

A Smarter War On Drug Abuse

By Abigail Trafford

Attention: The Surgeon General has found that Hollywoodcan sometimes be good for your health.

This happens when a movie accurately depicts a health problem and sends a powerful message to the country. Last week the medical establishment, led by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), went to Tinseltown and gave the mind-blowing movie "Traffic" the health equivalent of best picture award.

"Traffic" certainly got all the parts of the drug-trafficking world right, from the cartels in Mexico to the living rooms of middle America. To sit through the movie through the violence, death, corruption and sorrow is to get an education in how the nation's war on drugs has failed.

As a result, "Traffic" has changed the debate on drugs. No one is talking about simple answers in the old-style polarized rhetoric of lock 'em ups vs. treat 'em. The movie makes it clear that both sides the law enforcement side and the treatment side need an overhaul.

"It was a good refreshing jolt," said a male friend who came of age during the Reagan era war on drugs. "There's no silver bullet that's going to solve the problem." The problem is too huge, with "lots of ugly facets," he continued, referring to scenes in the movie with the corrupt general, the misguided drug czar, the broken daughter. "The movie made a very big impact," my friend said. "People really looked at it."

"The movie was a rude awakening for me," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). People were awakened to "the fact that the drug world is a very vicious, cruel and militaristic operation," he told a group of health reporters last week. And there was a message for moms and dads, grammas and grampas, Grassley said: "They ought to be more concerned about what their kids are doing."

The federal government spends about $18 billion on the war on drugs, but only about 30 percent goes for research, prevention and treatment. Congress is set to increase the total to about $20 billion, Grassley said. "Until we get all the elements of society together police, education, family advocates, substance abuse [specialists], religious groups we're never going to do any good," he said.

"'Traffic' has raised the complexity of this issue," said NIDA director Laan I. Leshner, who presided at the celebrity awards event last week. "What 'Traffic' says is that you can't just arrest your way out of this."

In other words, it's not a question of supply or demand, of cops or therapists, but both. "You need all the forces at the table at the same time to make sure you're looking at the full complexity of this issue," he said.

Three different voices from an OP (ordinary person), a pol and a pro. And all three have similar things to say. They may not agree on what exactly to do about the problem of drugs and addiction, but there is a consensus on the need to rethink the war on drugs in a comprehensive way.

My bias favors the health side of the war, and I came away from "Traffic" with two strong impressions:

For starters, the country needs to invest more funds and talent in treatment. Ten years ago, there was little research on effective strategies. Today, addiction specialists have a much better idea of what works and how to restore abusers and addicts to productive lives. The young woman in "Traffic" who gets into treatment reflects the fortunate few. Only about 50 percent of addicts get treatment.

Second, the focus of any national campaign should be broadened to include not just illegal drugs but all addictive substances, from alcohol and prescribed drugs to cigarettes. In the real world, most addicts are also alcoholocs. Most treatment centers deal with multiple addictions. From the health viewpoint, it doesn't make sense to isolate and target just one category of harmful substances.

With last week's PRISM award, "Traffic" received an official seal of approval from the medical experts. These public health "Oscars" sponsored by the Entertainment Industries Council, Inc., NIDA and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are given every year to movies and television shows that most accurately portray the use and abuse of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes.

If Hollywood can get it right, why can't Washington?