The American government has been waging “war” against its civilian population for the past several decades. This war began with the war on crime, which thereafter resulted in the war on drugs. Following World War II, the American public placed a great emphasis on rehabilitation in the criminal justice system.
There was an honest belief that criminals benefit from rehabilitative measures and that prison could be an effective means of doing so. The sentencing of criminals at the time reflected this, providing a minimum and maximum sentence that granted the individual the opportunity to prove that he or she had made use of the rehabilitation resources available. Indeed, polling on public opinion reflected this. In 1968, a Harris poll found that 48% of the public believed that the primary purpose of the prison system was rehabilitation, and 72% believed that the emphasis should be on rehabilitation.
Despite this, there was overwhelming opposition to the established criminal justice system from both sides of the political spectrum. Liberals began to aspire towards voluntary rehabilitation, believing the coercive prison sentences were not effective because the individual needed to make the choice himself. The left also believed that prisons created and exploited a group of second-class citizens that were victimized by the prison system.
Ignoring the push for positive restructuring of the prison system, the right made substantial opposition, capitalizing on white, middle class fears of a diminishing level of safety in their neighborhoods and homes. The right, headed by Richard Nixon, heralded in an era of “Law and Order”. The general consensus became that drug use mandated punitive measures, and the rehabilitation would be largely ineffective amongst criminals.
But there is a great deal of evidence to the contrary. In “Breaking the Taboo” directors Cosmo Feilding Mellen and Fernando Grostein Andrade sought out “break th[e] taboo [about drug policy]…” and raise awareness amongst the public and policy makers to bring forth “more humane and effective drug policies.”
The film explores the history of the War on Drugs through narrative and interviews with 168 subjects, including numerous former heads of state—the likes of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and leaders from Brazil, Colombia, Switzerland, Norway and Mexico—and policemen, rehabilitated addicts, and inmates.
Recently, director Cosmo Feilding Mellen granted Elite Daily an interview in which he explains his ambitions for Breaking the Taboo, his views on how drug policy affects minority populations, and other opinions on how drug policy should function within a legal framework.
What’s behind the name Breaking the Taboo?
There is a taboo surrounding the subject of drug policy that prevents politicians from admitting that the War on Drugs is a failure, because they will be accused of being soft on drugs and soft on crime. This film and the contributors involved are committed to breaking this taboo so that we can look forward to more humane and effective drug policies.
What was your ambition for this project? Were you intent on raising awareness or grasping the attention of policy makers.
Well really we want to reach both because you can't separate one from the other. In general policy makers don't change policies until the public demand it from them, so we need to raise awareness in both groups.
The War on Drugs has resulted in the mass incarceration of primarily black and brown people. How would you suggest that policymakers rectify the higher rate of minority incarceration?
Really the War on Drugs is a war against poor people rather than against ethnic minorities. It's just a sad fact that ethnic minorities are more likely to be living in a poor area where there is more violence, crime, and police attention. But I certainly don't think the situation will be rectified by just arresting more white people, we need a paradigm shift in drug policy toward health and harm reduction.
Speaking of incarceration, would you propose that policymakers invest in responses to drug use utilizing rehabilitative measures rather than punitive measures like prison?
Yes, the most important step we need to take is to realise that non-violent drug addicts need medical help rather than criminal punishment. According to the UN 90% of drug users are not problematic, but we are spending billions of dollars a year arresting them and locking them up, and neglecting the addicts who need treatment.
The War on Drugs has been called the “biggest failure of global policy in the last 40 years.” What are the primary issues you have been able to identify with American drug policy.
That's a very big question, best to watch the film! But I think one of the main mistakes was to think that you can eradicate the supply of drugs. As long as there is a demand, there will always be a supply because the market is so profitable. So we need to focus more on the users. And by that I don't mean by arresting more of them! I mean by educating and helping them. Another big issue is failing to realise or admit that the War on Drugs is in fact causing far more damage than the drugs themselves. It is not drugs that have put 500,000 people in prison in the US, it is our stringent drug laws. It is not drugs that make criminal cartels so rich and powerful, it is the fact that drugs are illegal which has created a hugely profitable criminal market. I could go on, but you get the picture... Drug law reform activist Anthony Papa is quoted in the film saying, "If you can't control drug use in a maximum security prison, how can you control drug use in a free society?" Would you suggest a complete disbandment of drug policy or the enforcement of a new set of reformative policies. We definitely need a drug policy. We just need a more humane and effective one. The point is that at the moment drugs are illegal, so by definition the drug market is unregulated. Criminals are in control of these powerful substances instead of the government. So we need governments to reevaluate, realise that there is never going to be a drug free world, and protect, educate, and help their citizens as much as possible instead of locking them up.
Moving forward what are your plans for Breaking the Taboo?
The film is free online until the 14th January. Then the film is going to TV around the world. We also have a system called 'Premiere in a Box' whereby members of the public can organise their own screenings and we are sending the film to policy makers around the world - it will hopefully be screened at the House of Lords in the UK in the coming months.
Are there any other projects you have in progress or are planning for the near future? How about long term?
Yes there are a number of other taboos that we hope to break, but I can't go into too many details right now! Watch this space...
Stephen Edwards | Elite.