Webcast Recap

Breaking the Taboo is a documentary film about the War on Drugs, directed by Cosmo Feilding Mellen and Fernando Grostein Andrade, and Narrated by Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman. 

As is widely known, both legal and illegal drugs can cause enormous damage to individuals and society when they are abused.  These costs cannot be measured solely in terms of dollars and cents but have to be understood in terms of human lives altered, families destroyed, and communities upended.

In 2007, the cost of illicit drug use was estimated to be more than $193 billion. This includes direct and indirect costs such as those related to crime, healthcare, and lost productivity. Lost productivity accounts for an estimated $120.3 billion – including costs due to declining labor, specialty treatment costs, hospitalization costs, incarceration costs, and premature mortality costs.

Attempts to deal with these problems have varied over time from better education and treatment to more law enforcement and military responses; legalization and decriminalization.  So far, the results have been mixed and questions have emerged about the harms caused by the policies themselves, policies that attempt to restrict and limit access to drugs especially narcotics.

As Attorney General Eric Holder said recently, “As the so-called ‘war on drugs’ enters its fifth decade, we need to ask whether it, and the approaches that comprise it, have been truly effective.  He went on to add: “It’s clear... that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason...although incarceration has a significant role to play in our justice system – widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable.  It imposes a significant economic burden – totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone – and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”

This film takes a rather critical view of the “War on Drugs” as a framework for dealing with the drug problem.  It seeks to open a dialogue about the usefulness of the War on Drugs and suggests that a new framework is needed. 

While the Wilson Center has not taken a position on the War on Drugs, we agree that a discussion about the policy is important.  The dialogue underway both in the U.S. and Latin America are particularly important.  We see this film and the discussion that follows as another attempt to understand and grapple with what we all agree is a serious and vexing problem.