‘Breaking the Taboo’: The Worst Thing About Illegal Drugs Is Not the Drugs

Producer Sam Branson says the shocking human cost of the drug war drove him to make his new film, 'Breaking the Taboo.'

Breaking the Taboo is a new documentary film that dares to suggest—make that insist—that global drug policy, as largely dictated by the United States, is exactly the wrong way to go about reducing the harm done by drug addiction to individuals and societies.

Released in Brazil in 2011 and adapted for the European and American market by producer Sam Branson’s Sundog Pictures, Breaking the Taboo explores the findings reached by the Global Commission on Drug Policy in 2011. The independent, international commission determined that drug liberalization is the best approach in dealing with drug policy. (Along with several former heads of state, Sam Branson’s father, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, is a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy.)

We wanted to talk to Branson to find out more. For most Americans, the War on Drugs is fought in the media. But for the millions of people incarcerated in the U.S. and the many thousands killed worldwide since President Richard Nixon militarized hostilities against people getting high in 1971, drug-war arrest statistics and death tolls are counted off in real-world prison yards and morgues.

Over the past four decades, a host of elected leaders and appointed drug czars have pressed for “zero tolerance” in a “crusade” to “just say no” to the consumption of illegal drugs. This campaign has been presented as an epic battle for the soul of America.

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Drug supply and use within the U.S. has perhaps diminished since 1971—it depends on whose accounting you trust—but the American appetite for illicit highs is still the primary driver of one of the world’s most robust and lethal clandestine economies. Every year America’s drug war drags on, more than 10,000 lives are lost—in Mexico alone.

“The war has created the situation,” explains Jorge Casteneda, Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs from 2000 to 2003, speaking directly into Breaking the Taboo’s camera. “The situation did not create the war.”

“So the U.S. does have some allies in the War on Drugs, but they tend to be authoritarian countries like Russia, Singapore and Iran.”

Narrator Morgan Freeman—the embodiment of God in 2003’s Bruce Almighty—provides the voice of almighty reason as the film presents charged interviews and images from several continents to trace the history of the War on Drugs and testify to the ruinous, often fatal, mass disruptions caused by criminalizing a medical issue.

The inevitable conclusion of Breaking the Taboo is that, despite 40 years of concerted attack, the War on Drugs is no closer to victory than at its outset, amassing nothing more than a staggering casualty rate. Still, the government agencies waging this losing battle seem to be no closer to reviewing and changing their tactics.

The film’s producers are clearly striving to Break the Taboo on debate and reform of drug policies. They have released the movie on YouTube, to be viewed freely in its entirety (see above), in the belief that an informed public will speak out and demand action.

To that end, producer Sam Branson talks to TakePart about unnecessary death and imprisonment; about a new paradigm for fair and effective drug policy, and about public opinion being the force that gives elected leaders the courage to put change into motion.

TakePart: The United States plays a pivotal role in the world drug crisis—both by being the planet’s largest market for illegal drugs and by leading the global War on Drugs. How is the rest of the world’s attitude changing toward America’s impact on drug policy?

Sam Branson: That depends on where you look. Europe has been taking a slightly different approach for some time now. Countries like Portugal, Holland and Switzerland have implemented some policies based on the key principal that drugs should be a health issue rather than a criminal one—addicts need treatment, not prison—which have been very successful and should point a way forward for the rest of the world.

Right now, the most interesting region is Latin America. It has suffered the most from the War on Drugs, not because it has a particularly high rate of drug use, but because criminal cartels in Latin America have become immensely powerful and dangerous by servicing America’s massive demand for illegal drugs. This has been the case for decades, but now Latin American countries finally seem ready to stand up to America and demand fairer and more effective drug policies. We interviewed the current President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, in Breaking the Taboo, and he has been very vocal in calling for alternatives to the War on Drugs.

On the other side of the coin, there are countries like Russia that are now taking up an even harder line on drug policy than America. Russia has a devastating heroin and HIV epidemic sweeping the country, but its “solution” is to try to eradicate the poppies in Afghanistan and lock up the users in Russia. It isn’t working, and the situation is only getting worse.

So the U.S. does have some allies in the War on Drugs, but they tend to be authoritarian countries like Russia, Singapore and Iran.

People’s attitudes are changing on this issue. I believe that soon real pressure will be placed on the U.S. to find viable alternatives to the current repressive tactics. Throwing people in jail and ruining lives is not an answer. 

In 1970, U.S. prisons housed 330,000 inmates; by 2012, fueled largely by the War on Drugs, that number has exploded to 2.3 million. (Photo: ‘Breaking the Taboo’)

TakePart: The facts and the statistics presented in Breaking the Taboo overwhelmingly indicate that supply reduction has failed and that harm reduction is a more effective strategy for lowering rates of illegal drug use. Why are so many people resistant to this evidence?

Sam Branson: The biggest problem with the drug issue is that people tend to think about it morally rather than pragmatically—“drugs are bad; so we must fight them.” That attitude is a hard prejudice to break through. A lot of it is based on ignorance: For example, the idea that legal drugs like tobacco and alcohol are less of a threat than marijuana, by far the most common illegal drug, is just not true.

Most people blame all the harms associated with the War on Drugs on the drugs. The truth is, most of those harms are coming from drug policy not the drugs themselves: e.g. it is not drugs that have killed around 100,000 people in Mexico over six years, it is the criminals, who are supported and made powerful by the illegality of the drugs trade, and the soldiers that are fighting this War on Drugs.

Similarly, it is not the drugs that have put 500,000 people in jail in the U.S.; it is the drug laws. The War on Drugs even resists giving heroin addicts clean needles to prevent the transmission of HIV—even though UNAIDS and the World Health Organization openly support these measures.

So if people look a bit more closely at the subject, they will see that reform isn’t about promoting or condoning drug use, it is about trying to help human beings, and that is the moral thing to do.

TakePart: There is no anti-illegal-drug lobby contributing to congressional campaign funds, and yet American lawmakers remain steadfast in their support of the War on Drugs. What are some of the institutional factors and pressures that contribute to this commitment?

Sam Branson: Obviously there are some institutions that rely heavily on the War on Drugs: The ever-expanding prison industrial complex would miss the 500,000 federal prisoners that the War on Drugs is providing. But I think, more fundamentally, the media and public opinion scare politicians from speaking out; so if we can change that, real change will be possible. Mostly politicians lag behind the public when it comes to controversial topics. If the public demands change, the politicians will have to get involved. Politicians can be scared of innovation—but the world needs innovation.

TakePart: Rather than numbers of people imprisoned and quantities of drugs and dollars seized, what metrics would you like to see used in evaluating successful drug policy?

Sam Branson: Governments should be focusing on the health and safety of their populations. So the kind of metrics they should be considering are the number of people needing treatment for drug addiction compared with the number actually receiving treatment, the number of recorded drug overdoses, and the amount of drug-related violence. If they were focusing on metrics like these, there would be a lot less suffering in the world, and they would realize that a War on Drugs is not an effective policy. In fact, it’s causing far more damage to the world than the drugs themselves. I would like to see less people in jail due to drug-related offences. 

TakePart: What will it take for politicians currently in office to break the taboo and advocate for a humane drug strategy?

Sam Branson: In a word: Courage. That’s what it takes for politicians to break the taboo. This is already happening. President Santos from Colombia is speaking out. He says politicians can’t always just say what they think the public wants to hear; sometimes they have to say what is right. The Deputy Prime Minister of the U.K., Nick Clegg, also came out in favor of reviewing drug policy last week, as well as leaders from Guatemala, Costa Rica, Uruguay and many others.

A real momentum is building around the world. These politicians are risking their positions to speak out, and it is absolutely vital that the people show their support. Politicians have to start seeing drug policy as an issue that will win them votes rather than lose them elections, and public movements like our online petition and, on a bigger scale, the regulation of marijuana in Colorado and Washington states are so important.

I believe enough politicians want change; they just need the courage and support to make it happen. So let’s Break the Taboo!

Are you ready to Break the Taboo against debating and changing drug policy? Say why or why not in COMMENTS.

Related Stories on TakePart:

Mexican Drug War Orphans 10,000 Children in One Year

Afghanistan Losing the War Against Addiction

Photo of the Day: Chinese Inmates Say Bye to Heroin


Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice. Email Allan | @Allan_MacDonell