The Maturing Moviegoer: “Traffic” and Drugs Today

Eli Flesch

Eli Flesch

Pot. Weed. Devil’s grass. Hell shrub. MJ. Doug. These nicknames (several of which are unique to my own vernacular) are among the many terms used to refer to the common drug, marijuana. In this column, we’ll look at Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 drama “Traffic” and how drugs are now, more than ever, a poignant part of coming of age. It’s my hope that we can create compromise on the effects of drugs, an area so devoid of middle ground. So go ahead, light a bowl of Doug. Relax. We’ll get started.

Drug culture can be extreme. Not in the Nancy Grace sense, where a puff of hell shrub makes a person hungry to murder. But in the sense that drugs have the tremendous power to underscore the thoughts and actions of young adults.

In “Traffic,” they do just this, dramatizing the relationship between the United States Drug Czar, Robert Wakefield, and his heroin addicted daughter, Caroline. The film feels like a documentary that has access to an uncanny truth on the power of drugs. It examines bloodshed from the border to the inner city.

Going through adolescence with the disease of addiction certainly won’t happen to the majority of kids (at least not the ones portrayed in the movie), and is certainly not conducive to arriving at adulthood in a beneficial way. But there might be something to say about some experimentation. This is old news. What’s interesting is what constitutes experimenting and how that affects a person’s thinking.

To write to the broadest area, I will focus on marijuana. Today, teens are subject to tremendous pressures from their friends, family and society. It’s only natural to want an escape. The biggest bone I have to pick with this reason for drug use is that it ignores the fact that life only gets tougher. The biggest tolerance humans have may be the tolerance to endure greater personal challenge as we age. If relied upon, drugs can to a large extent reduce the autonomy by which we dictate how we deal with increasing pressure.

In “Traffic,” Caroline’s mother, Barbara, gets into an argument with Robert over an appropriate way to discipline Caroline after a boy overdosed in her company. Barbara talks about “[taking] the quotes off ‘experimentation.’” She recognizes the danger in her daughter’s addiction. Yet she is the proponent of giving Caroline leniency. This contradiction reflects her understanding of pressure, yet an unstable grasp of how to deal with it. If she, a grown woman, cannot understand the best course of action, Caroline certainly can’t either.

When young adults experiment with drugs, it doesn’t necessarily follow the steps of the scientific method. We don’t structure how we use drugs and how we detect differences between using them and not using them.

It seems we possess a youthful amnesia when it comes to remembering the second requirement of experimentation, that we must pause from use to detect a difference. Many people do stop, not because of crippling addiction, but because the drug loses its luster, and the potency of the first time you really got high. Maybe you don’t feel like a better person for using. Others keep up their habits far into adulthood.

What happens if you stumble upon a perfect balance while experimenting? I’m not sure. “Traffic” doesn’t help too much either, relying heavily upon dramatic situations with high stakes. “The Dude” from the Coen Brothers’ “Big Lebowski” in 1998. There’s a man who’s got himself figured out. But then again, drugs are a huge component of his identity, something many wouldn’t desire.

My final thought on the matter may be anti-climactic. I say everyone should experiment with a lighter drug like LSD or marijuana, but at a point in physical and mental maturity. Yeah, things in high school and college are tough. Deal with it. When you feel like you’ve reached some sort of stasis, play around a little. Many smart, influential people have. Get comfortable. Then get high.

To recommend other hip marijuana names like ‘Gnarly Garden,’ you can reach ELI FLESCH at ekflesch@ucdavis.edu and tweet him @eliflesch.

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