Documentary series examining the global story of drugs, from Afghanistan’s poppy fields to the streets of New York and the estates of Edinburgh. With Angus Macqueen from Channel 4.
Episode 1 : Everyone’s at It
One in six British citizens have used class-A drugs. Focusing on Scotland – named by the UN as Europe’s drug capital – the first episode shows the stark contrast between Edinburgh’s rich city centre and its underprivileged estates, where up to 60-70% of the residents can be drug users.
Film-maker Angus Macqueen visits one such estate with two volunteers for drugs charity Crew. They show him how the drug trade operates on a day-to-day basis in front of – and often with the participation of – children, some as young as eight. While all social classes use drugs equally, 70% of addicts have left school by the age of 16 and 85% are unemployed.
The police fail to control supply – in Scotland seizing just one per cent of the heroin consumed – criminals make money, and demand only increases. With the advent of synthetic drugs like GBL, which itself was until recently quite legal and easily available online, banning and policing are becoming ever more random and ineffectual.
Angus meets parents whose children have died as a result of drug abuse. Suzanne Dyer’s son Chris died from an addiction to GBL, a compound found in some industrial cleaners and widely used by clubbers. GBL became a popular ‘dance’ drug when GHB, another similar, and less potent, substance was banned.
John Arthur from Crew, which supported Suzanne Dyer and her son, sees the obsession with the banning and classification of drugs as increasingly irrelevant to what is happening on the streets. John’s not alone. Angus speaks to former government drugs advisor Professor David Nutt, who was famously sacked when he began to say in public that present policy is not based on scientific evidence.
Episode 2: The Life and Death of a Dealer
The Queensbridge Estate in New York lies within sight of the Manhattan skyscrapers, but is seemingly a world away. The largest housing complex in Queens, it is regularly raided by police to break up massive drug operations.
Here, award-winning filmmaker Angus Macqueen looks at the social cost of America’s war on drugs through the life of 28-year-old Thomas Winston: a small-time drug dealer struggling to stay out of prison and away from the lure of easy money that illegal drugs offer. As his probation officer says, here is a man who can earn $15,000 a week in the drugs world or $200 before taxes working in McDonald’s.
Thomas is first seen campaigning against the ‘Rockefeller’ drugs laws in New York State, where sale or possession of small amounts of drugs are given a mandatory sentence equivalent to second degree murder, and have long been seen to be both discriminatory and draconian.
Human Rights Watch have published a series of reports making clear that Whites, Black and Hispanics sell and consume narcotics in equal numbers, yet over 80% of the prisoners in New York State are Black or Latino. Inside a prison, barely a white face can be seen.
The film tracks Thomas’s moving story over a number of months, as he interacts with the legal system and as his probation officer and lawyer attempt to help him; but gradually he is drawn back to his old life. By the end of the film, Thomas has been stabbed to death.
Thomas’s story illustrates the failure of America’s zero tolerance drug laws, which don’t stop supply or address addiction, but rather consign whole groups of society to a tragic cycle, undermining the very fabric of whole communities: be it here in Britain or in the US.
Episode 3 – Birth of a Narco-State
The third and final part of Angus Macqueen’s exploration of the failure of present drugs polices takes the viewer to the frontline. Birth of a Narco-State shows how the war on drugs is actually fuelling the long-term civil war in Afghanistan, possibly creating what he calls a ‘Narco-Theocracy’: a toxic mixture of drugs money and religious extremism.
Meanwhile, western demand for heroin generates huge profits that finances both sides in the civil war, corrupting the very government that British soldiers are fighting to protect.
This film gets under the skin of the drug trade in Afghanistan, from the deserts of the Afghanistan-Iran border to the smuggling centre of Herat and the courts in Kabul, engaging with those working to establish some sort of order in the face of overwhelming odds; all the time questioning whether it is our drug laws or our drug demand that is causing the problems in the first place.
Macqueen meets General Aminullah – former head of security at Kabul International Airport – who was sacked after exposing widespread corruption and then placed under investigation himself. We see shocking footage he took of a young, female Afghan burqa-clad drug smuggler demonstrating brazen disregard for the law, who then got off scot-free. Rarely has such an open example of what ‘corruption’ means been caught on camera.
Filming in the newly-opened – US and UK-financed – drugs courts, it becomes clear that many of the traffickers who are arrested are still ‘small fish’. The big players always seem to get off; even the judges admit that they are too well-connected, often high up in the government, to the very people the British troops are fighting for and dying to protect. Afghanistan’s president himself, Hamid Karzai, pardoned five convicted drug traffickers connected to his election campaign.
Allied policy to the drugs issue has been in confusion since the invasion of 2001: our troops have been told in some years to eradicate all poppies, and in others to leave them so as to win hearts and minds of the peasants. Sometimes different policies are carried out in different areas.
And all the time around 60 to 70% of the Taliban’s funding comes from the heroin trade. The profits are staggering, with 10 kilos of opium – valued at around £400 in Afghanistan – making one kilo of heroin worth £40,000 by the time it reaches Europe.