Review: History examines the hazy history of ‘America’s War on Drugs’ with exhaustive but engaging detail

Television Critic

In “America’s War on Drugs,” beginning Sunday, History offers a four-part spin through the American government’s complicated, often hypocritical, ultimately crazy relationship with narcotics over half a century – its lofty motives, its ulterior motives. Fueled by the testimony of various scholars and journalists, reformed dealers, and former CIA and DEA officers whose agencies’ differently framed missions often put them into direct conflict, it’s a thick, tortuous telling that runs some six hours with the commercials removed, exhausting but rarely dull.

The official declaration of the “War on Drugs” is seen as beginning with President Nixon’s June 17, 1971, statement that “America’s public enemy number one is drug abuse” – a campaign that, we’re told here, also served as legal cover for attacking the antiwar movement and black power movement. But the series runs back another decade to begin its story with the common cause made by the Mafia and the CIA in the early ‘60s attempt to rid Cuba of Castro, blurring lines that have stayed blurry since, and to the agency’s accidental introduction of LSD into American society. (They had hoped to use it for mind control — buying the world’s available supply from its manufacturer — but it got out of their hands and something quite different happened.)

What’s clear through this thicket of intersecting stories is that the American policy has often been made out of fear – not necessarily manufactured, but often misplaced. Fear of communism, of terrorism, of crime in the streets.


Whether or not you believe that crack was a CIA plot to destroy the inner cities, “America’s War on Drugs” indicates that the agency was not particularly concerned with the domestic upshot of deals it made with Latin American drug cartels – deals that ultimately helped flood the United States with cocaine and transform it from a rich person’s party drug to a poor person’s quick high. The intelligence agency and the drug cartels might have had different, more and less “noble” goals — patriotism on the one hand, money on the other — but they share a certain amorality, a certain heartlessness.

Many stops are made along the way – Vietnam, Afghanistan, including the militarization of police (hello, Daryl Gates!), Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign, Bill Clinton saying, “But I didn’t inhale.” There’s a colorful, if almost wholly unlikable, cast of shady characters, underworld legends, criminal visionaries, corrupt politicians, dirty cops, mad scientists and paranoid nut jobs on both sides of the law. There are political coups and drive-by shootings. Comparatively little time is spent on the Oxycontin and methamphetamine epidemics – and for that matter marijuana, which as a subject does not enter the story nearly until the end, when legalization threatens the cartels’ profits – which have less of an international profile, and no CIA subplot.

Each episode begins with an advisory “The following program contains intense drug imagery and violence,” which you would do well to regard, and one that “In some instances events have been dramatized.” “Many,” or even “most,” is closer to the mark. Such re-creations are common enough, but because the filmmakers have gone to some lengths to make them look technologically appropriate to period and “real” – caught by surveillance cameras or home video – they get mixed up with the actual documentary footage and photos (which flash by too quickly). They demean the record. They aren’t history.

Scant attention is paid to drug use itself, interestingly, and to the extent that it is, the users aren’t judged. (Reporter: “Are you going to tell what’s bad about LSD?” Ken Kesey: “Not necessarily.”) If anything, they are regarded as victims of both the problem and the supposed cure – three-strike laws, sentencing minimums – that has filled American jails and prisons past bursting and had a generations-long effect on the inner cities. Nor is there any moralizing about drug use itself, which most of the commentators regard as inevitable – a feature of human existence, not a bug – if potentially destructive. This lack of censure is refreshing, but the question of how society might better treat drug addiction is limited to a few observations at the series’ very end.

It’s undeniably the case that drug epidemics, even apart from the drug-taking, create crime. There is nothing inherently insincere either in Bill Clinton’s vow to “take our streets back from crime and gangs and drugs” or George W. Bush’s that “Illegal drugs are the enemies of ambition and hope ... and I intend to do something about it,” however ineffective or incidentally calamitous the results. As “America’s War on Drugs” asserts again and again, this is an unwinnable war, like the war on terror, defined by unintended consequences, backfiring schemes and collateral damage. The faces change, as do the trade routes and methods of delivery, but the drugs go on.


“America’s War on Drugs”

Where: History

When: 9 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday

Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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