________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 17 . . . . April 18, 2008


Damage Done: The Drug War Odyssey.

Connie Littlefield (Writer & Director). Ann Bernier & Kent Martin (Producers). Christopher Zimmer & Kent Martin (Executive Producers).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2006.
54 min., 13 sec., VHS & DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153C 9106 411.

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.

Review by Bryannie Kirk.

*** /4


In Damage Done: The Drug War Odyssey, we meet a group of maverick cops – and former cops – who have put in decades fighting the War on Drugs. They may be Libertarians, Republicans, Socialists, or Evangelical Christians – but what they all have in common is a strong belief that drug prohibition is a terrible mistake. They believe that all illicit drugs should be in the hands of government, not under the control of criminals.

John Gayder, a currently employed constable with nearly 20 years experience, is our guide to the world of pro-legalization cops. Among this group is the legendary Frank Serpico – the man who blew the whistle on corruption in the New York Police Department, and who was shot in the face for his efforts. Then there’s retired police captain Peter Christ; he spent 20 years enforcing drug laws before co-founding the group “LEAP: Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.” There’s Howard Wooldridge, who rode his horse Misty across America in a cowboy hat and a t-shirt that says “Cops Say Legalize Drugs. Ask Me Why.” These are only a few of the men who tell us their incredible stories. (From the DVD jacket).

     In Damage Done, the viewer spends an hour discovering the opinions of well-informed people who have had experience in the world of drugs – primarily from the law-enforcement side. John Gayder is the main contributor throughout the film, but there are may others who explain how they came to their current positions against drug prohibition, including politicians, social workers, and current and ex-police. The contributors are disillusioned with the progress of the “War on Drugs” and the lack of change in the problems associated with drug addiction since the three-pillar system of law enforcement, prevention, and treatment programs was put into effect. The fourth pillar, harm reduction (including safe injection sites such as Vancouver’s “Insite”) is a small portion – if present at all – of budgets dealing with these issues.

     Damage Done offers various solutions for dealing with the problem of drug addiction and the associated problematic situations. One of the organizations that has been built around this idea is LEAP: Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which includes many currently employed police officers. They focus on spreading awareness of their point of view regarding drug prohibition. According to Damage Done, Canadian drug enforcement officers have been giving more leeway in recent years. Police officers do have a fairly high degree of personal agency for deciding how to interpret the stringency of the law in any given situation. There are increasing numbers of those who interpret the statement “police officers may use their discretion in drug prohibition” more liberally than others.

     The film ranges from Vancouver to Columbia and many cities in between, focusing on Canada but dealing with the United States as well (and Central America to a lesser degree). Convincing in their arguments, the contributors are all passionate about their views, the people they’ve met, and the extreme importance of the situation. The film offers knowledgeable and educated opinions on a controversial issue from different sections of society. It does not present a balanced viewpoint, and it doesn’t purport to; this is a documentary from one side of this issue. While the documentary does take arguments from the other side of the issue in order to refute them and show their reasons for disagreement, there aren’t any representatives who support drug prohibition in the film. It would be interesting to see the response to the film of those on the drug prohibition side of the issue.

     For its purpose, this film is both perceptive and effective. According to the film, the unintended results of drug prohibition are many: corruption within the police force is one strong example. The substances to which people are addicted become more important than food, shelter, or safety. Most of the crimes (90%) that are committed by drug addicts themselves are primarily towards property; for example, stealing in order to get money in order to get drugs. If drugs were decriminalized, funds that are tied up in drug prohibition enforcement could be rerouted to social services to get drug addicts out of the black hole of addiction and closer to a more productive and safe life. The film also puts forth the idea that the drug industry is supply-and-demand – when one drug dealer is jailed, there are numerous others to step in and take their place supplying the market for drugs. Another interesting statistic: in 1914, before any drug laws were passed in Canada, 1.3-1.4% of the population were drug users, a very similar percentage to recent years.

     Damage Done is a valuable film that has received numerous positive reviews since it was released. Anyone who is interested in drug use from the angle of sociology, psychology, or criminology, among others, would be well-served by viewing it. However, I would hesitate to suggest this film for all audiences as there are certainly some semi-graphic shots of drug use – although they are not gratuitous and are definitely relevant to the points being made. For classroom use, this film would best be used to open up debate on these issues with more mature classes. Clips, or even the film in its entirety, could be put to use introducing an alternative side of the story than that of the current laws. These issues certainly need to be discussed at many levels of society, and the open sharing of information and opinions surrounding them is crucial.  


Bryannie Kirk in the Master of Arts in Children’s Literature program at the University of British Columbia.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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