A “war on drugs whose objective is to eradicate the drug market,” Eduardo Porter of the New York Times recently wrote, “is a war that cannot be won.” In the report he highlights how the “war on drugs” has been a complete and utter failure. The “illegal drug market,” he argues, “cannot be eradicated.” The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has not been able to stop drug supplies from reaching the United States, which is why the cost of a gram of cocaine is lower in price than it was in 2001. On top of that, tens of thousands of people from Central America and fifty-five thousand people from Mexico have been killed or murdered as a result of violence, which stems from the “war on drugs.”
This is the climate for film director Oliver Stone’s latest movie, Savages, which presents a hypothetical fictional narrative on the modern marijuana market that supposes what might happen if the finest marijuana seeds in California came from Afghanistan. Based on Don Winslow’s novel of the same title, the film is both farce—the war on drugs—and tragedy—what happens to people caught up in the war.
Ophelia (Blake Lively), who is known as “O” in the film, is, according to Winslow, an “Orange County slacker rich girl.” She lives with Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) in Laguna Beach, California. They share her and she is happy because this gives her the ability to live a plush life where regular shopping sprees to the mall are possible.
Chon, a veteran of the Iraq war, smuggled the seeds into California so they could be cultivated by Ben, who has great expertise in the field of botany. Ben is a spiritual and idealistic humanitarian. He appears to have funded programs for children and impoverished people in Africa with marijuana profits. Chon, on the other hand, likely suffers from mental health issues that stem from being in a war. He has no problem with violence being the solution to problems and handles the business situations where people have to die so business can continue to run smoothly.
A Baja cartel, headed by Elena (Salma Hayek), sends the two southern California growers a gruesome video showing the severed heads and bloodied bodies of drug workers in an effort to terrorize them into sharing some of their business with the cartel. The cartel calls for a meeting so a deal can be extended. But, Ben and Chon are not prepared to accept the deal from the cartel, and in fact, become convinced they might be able to leave California and go on the run.
O goes on one last shopping trip before they leave when she is kidnapped by the cartel. This, Elena believes, will provide enough leverage to coerce Ben and Chon into doing business with the cartel because if they don’t, the girl will die. Ben and Chon appear ready to submit to the cartel; but when they realize cooperating may not be enough to get O back, Chon convinces Ben that they may have to respond to the barbarism of the cartel with their own violent measures.
There are two additional characters who accentuate this story, which seems destined to end in a Shakespearean bloodbath. Lado (Benicio Del Toro) is a sleazy enforcer who uses the cover of Mexican day laborers to eliminate people who are causing trouble for the cartel. Dennis (John Travolta) is a DEA agent playing both sides of the “war on drugs.” He takes bribes from Ben and Chon while at the same time working for the federal government to fight against the drug trade. Both these characters are emblematic of the kind of moral depravity that exists in the war on drugs: there are drug lords who will kill and double-cross for business and federal agents who want the glory of catching leaders of cartels while allowing it to flourish so they can make money themselves.
What isn’t hypothetical is how the cartels are here doing business in America. Stone explains in one interview:
They are here and they are growing. We know that. There’s been buzz. We know that they have Indian land, and they may have deals here in California because the best laboratory in the world is now here. All of these possibilities exist, but quite frankly, from all my research, I couldn’t find anything like this that had already happened. No one was talking about that. We do have an independent growers market here, which is like a boutique business, and they’re very good people. They grow great stuff. It’s the best I’ve ever had, in 40 years. It’s like Wal-Mart coming to town. If that does happen, Wal-Mart will definitely be interested in making good product because they’ll take the niche business and bring it up. Mexican weed is shit, as we say in the movie. They would be interested in growing better weed because there’s money in it.
The authorities in the film are nothing but complicit in the “war on drugs.” Police either are bought off by the cartel and willing to carry out violence, or they are seemingly oblivious to the presence of Mexican drug lords in California. Moreover, the film indirectly makes a statement about the confluence of the “war on terrorism” and the “war on drugs” in that sense that military buddies of Chon act as sharpshooters who defend against the cartel. They use methods they learned in war to set off improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against the cartel, presenting another hypothetical development in the war on drugs: that when soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq bring the war home they might not stop fighting. They might get involved in the drug market and wind up fighting the cartels. This hypothetical is only incredibly far-fetched if one ignores the unemployment rate and rates of suicide among veterans and fails to realize the drug market could be something returning veterans turn to in order to have money. (However, it is in the cartels’ interest to keep the violence south of the US border.)
Cloaked in a rather compelling narrative, the film is an argument for ending drug prohibition in America. Prohibition clearly enables the drug cartels to engage in violence and terrorism to maximize profit. As presented in the film, Ben and Chon’s business poses a minimal threat to society; but when they become entangled in the savage drug cartels, they themselves must be vigilante beasts in order to survive. Legalizing drugs would undercut the ability of cartels to carry out barbaric acts to further expand their strangleholds over whole entire areas where death and destruction regularly occurs.
There’s also the basic idea, as Stone said on “The Gavin Newsom Show” on Current TV, that government should not be telling citizens what to do. Citizens in American society want the drugs, making the “war on drugs” even more corrupt and depraved. The federal government wants the American population to follow a kind of moral code it will never be able to successfully condition citizens to abide by; and as a result, the “war on drugs”—so long as it is perpetuated—will only ever be a war of wasteful spending breeding carnage and violating the rights and liberties of millions.