Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 1(5) (1993) 44-47
Dealing with Drugs presents itself as an explicit and candid documentary and evaluation of the issues and problems associated with the use of drugs in four countries. Specifically, the viewer is introduced to Toronto (Canada), New York City (United States), Amsterdam (The Netherlands) and Liverpool (England) and is offered several different theoretical and moral perspectives as well as a number of response models to drugs and drug addiction. The basic purpose of the film is to examine and suggest alternatives to the apparently ineffective "war on drugs" presently occurring in America (but see Reiman, 1990 for another perspective). Noting that this video cannot be faulted for restraint in terms of its presentation, viewers should be aware that profanity, graphic scenes of marijuana and crack smoking as well as heroin and cocaine injecting, including demonstrations of safe groin injection, may be unsettling or disturbing to some.
The documentary begins in Toronto, providing an examination of the cocaine/crack problem in that city. The narrator, and consequently the viewer, is privy to a limousine ride with a crack dealer who speaks frankly about the filth and indecency associated with the distribution of crack and powder cocaine, which obviously has resulted in his own financial success. This particular scene reminds viewers of the difficulties associated with convincing young people to ignore the glamours of the drug scene (the dealer was about 18 years old and his image has been depicted in movies like New Jack City). Residents of poorer neighborhoods in Toronto comment on users smoking crack and snorting powder cocaine off car hoods in the streets. Police sweeps, according to the film, only relocate the problems and players.
The drug user image portrayed in New York City is not an unfamiliar one. According to the film, jail populations in New York City have increased from 7000 in 1980 to 20,000 in 1990, with over 90 percent of the prisoners characterized as racial minorities. Over 50 percent of those prisoners are convicted for drug-related[End page 44] offenses. Depicted in the video are scenes of police raids and street arrests that only further illustrate these disturbing statistics while most, if not all, of the users and arrestees shown from New York City are minorities. Discussions of the poverty/drug relationships are emphasized throughout the documentary. But, having previously mentioned that drug use in Toronto persists across classes, the New York City portrayal leaves the viewer with the erroneous assumption that drug use is primarily a "ghetto problem" (see, for example, Harrison & Gfroerer, 1992). The relationships between drugs and homelessness, prostitution, AIDS and death are mentioned and illustrated, rather frankly in some scenes. The efficacy of treatment alternatives, with a particular emphasis on the Phoenix House in New York, is also considered.
The situation in Amsterdam features a different approach to drugs than that currently used in the United States. "Coffee shops," where "soft" drugs such as marijuana and hashish are listed on menus, are common, and formal reactions to "hard" drugs such as heroin and cocaine concentrate on harm reduction rather than law enforcement. Vans cruise the streets in order to distribute condoms, clean needles, and oral doses of methadone to registered heroin addicts. Amsterdam officials suggest little poverty exists in the country, and drug use rates are lower than countries focusing on enforcement as opposed to health and harm reduction. While this strategy appears effective in countries with small drug user populations, the potential for success elsewhere is obviously debatable. Regardless, harm reduction approaches are occurring in some parts of New York City, although mail distribution of syringes and street distribution of condoms and needle-cleaning kits by religious and gay/lesbian organizations are hardly endorsed by city officials.
The strategy adopted and illustrated in Liverpool differs greatly from most conventional methods. Heroin, cocaine and methadone are distributed at minimal costs to registered addicts through drug stores. Prescription approaches and the medicalization of drug problems are fully endorsed by law enforcement personnel, and the social stigma that is associated with drug use in America appeared absent or negligible in England. Unique responses to the AIDS issue, including heroin-laced cigarettes and professional instruction to addicts and youth on safe injection methods, places an emphasis on[End page 45] health and risk avoidance as opposed to deterrence and criminalization. Liverpool claims decreasing street crime rates for the past three years with a 12 percent reduction in 1990 alone. The rate of HIV infected drug users was reported to be one percent as compared to 60 percent in New York City. Street distribution of condoms and syringes via vans also occurs in parts of England. Dealing with Drugs indirectly advances decriminalization, legalization and/or prescription responses as opposed to enforcement/criminalization reactions to drug use and addiction, as evidenced by the film's primary focus on the positive aspects of these former strategies . Nonetheless, the number of heroin addicts and cocaine/crack users in New York City alone would suggest that strategic approaches of this sort would be extremely difficult here as well as in other countries with high drug use rates (for an excellent discussion of this concern, see Kleiman, 1992). Indeed, the film's myopic vision seemingly overlooks the significant problems that apparently arise from the employment of these alternative strategies. For example, little attention in the film was given to the extent of unregistered drug users in England and their respective criminal behavior, HIV/STD infection rates, and other health problems. Prostitution among addicts, which the film did confront, persists in England and elsewhere. Moreover, only one in 20 addicts who are provided drugs in Liverpool successfully eliminate drug use from their lives, an unfortunate, yet comparable, figure to many drug treatment programs in the United States. Further, the long-term health effects of any addiction are likely to be damaging to the addict and to children born to them, an additional consideration not addressed in the documentary.
The film emphasizes Surgeon General Koop's 1990 report that there were 2500 cocaine-related deaths and 2000 heroin-related deaths, as compared to 350,000 nicotine-related deaths during the same period. The number of deaths directly related to alcohol ranges from 80,000 to 100,000 per annum while the indirect effects of alcohol on the annual death rate are also significant (e.g., alcohol-related accidents, suicides, unsubstantiated alcohol-related deaths, etc.). Given the grim mortality figures associated with legal drugs such as alcohol and nicotine, the potential effect on the death rate from decriminalizing or legalizing currently illicit substances must, of course, also be considered.[End page 46] As an impartial and unbiased comparison of formal reactions and strategies to drug use, Dealing with Drugs falls somewhat short, but as a cross-country comparison, the film succeeds. Since it is becoming readily apparent that the enforcement approach in the United States is failing, this film provides scholars, police, prosecutors, and medical personnel with several currently implemented alternatives. As a teaching tool, the video would be useful in any class, undergraduate or graduate, that deals with the legalization or criminalization of drugs, as well as any course concerned with AIDS-related issues. In terms of a general contribution to drug issues and debates, the film is both pragmatic and appropriate. This reviewer hits Dealing with Drugs with three gavels on the "gavel scale".
Joseph B. Kuhns III
University at Albany
State University of New York
School of Criminal Justice
1. Most recently, the legalization issue has been fueled
by Surgeon General Elder's suggestion at the National
Press Club that legalization should be carefully studied
as an alternative to the current "war on drugs" in
America. Later, in remarks made to the press, President
Clinton was quick to distance himself from the Surgeon
Kleiman, M. (1992). Against excess: Drug policy for results. New York: Basic Books.
Reiman, J. (1990). The rich get richer and the poor get prison (3rd Ed.). New York: MacMillan.[End page 47]