Monday, January 16, 2012

TV Review: National Geographic's Drugs, Inc.

I'm really digging this new show produced by National Geographic, called Drugs, Inc. As a NatGeo production it is, obviously, a non-fiction show.

(image source: website screenshot)

Each one-hour episode of the show is a fascinating look into a specific drug that makes up part of the global illegal drug trade. Only eight episodes have aired so far, covering drugs like cocaine, heroin, cannabis, ecstasy, and meth.

National Geographic has really done their research on this show. Every episode features footage, interviews, and information with and about the following:

  • End-users;
  • Dealers;
  • Distributors;
  • Traffickers;
  • Producers/Growers;
  • Scientists (who talk about what the drug does to the brain);
  • Law enforcement (in regards to enforcement issues);
  • Doctors (in regards to personal health impacts);
  • Sociologists (in regards to societal impacts);
  • Politicians and lawmakers (in regards to legal history and current legal issues);
  • Pro-legalization groups (when applicable, obviously. No one wants to legalize meth, but the cannabis episode highlighted the current debates in that realm, and apparently acid and other hallucinogens have some valid therapeutic uses);
  • Just-say-no groups. 
And they really do go global - they visit poppy fields in Afghanistan, coca fields in Peru, hashish fields in Morocco, and grow-ops in North America. 

The end result is an incredibly balanced and informative show that is not trying to present an agenda, just the facts. The show boldly tackles issues that lots of people would rather not talk about. Interestingly, the US Government and the US Drug Enforcement Agency directly support the show's production, even though some of the facts don't always agree with the law. 

Here are a few of the things you can learn from this show. 
  • Hard-drug growers (poppy growers in Afghanistan or coca leaf growers in Peru) usually have exceptionally poor families. This is not because growing the ingredients for drugs provides a bad income. In fact, growing ingredients for drugs is often several times more profitable than growing non-narcotic crops. They are trying to earn money so their kids can eat and go to school, and they are well aware (and sometimes ashamed) of the irony: they're taking money and food out of other people's mouths to do it. 
  • Acid can be produced in two ways. One way is to synthesize it in a lab. The other involves refining a byproduct of the Sassafras tree - the same tree we get Root Beer flavour from! 
  • Hard drugs (meth, heroin, crack cocaine) are terrifyingly addictive, which is also why they are expensive - hardcore addicts will do almost anything to get them. Drugs like heroin and crack cocaine change the chemistry of the brain in such a way that the user undergoes incredibly painful withdrawal symptoms if they haven't had a "hit" within a few hours. Once I saw how these people live on a day-to-day basis, my perception of them changed from criminals to victims - their lives are being controlled by hard drugs. 
  • In North America, as a rule, the further North of the Mexico-USA border you are, the more expensive drugs are. 
  • In the United States, the Federal Government regards cannabis (marijuana) as illegal - you can go to jail for a long time on a pot charge. However, 16 US states defy this ban and have decriminalized cannabis for medical purposes. In an M. Night Shyamalan twist, the Federal Government legally mails four people legal cannabis for medical purposes every month (see also). They used to mail it out to 14 people but... 10 died. 
  • Traffickers and the cartels behind them are usually the real bad guys. Not so much the growers, not even the dealers and end-users, but the traffickers, where there is big money to be made. 
I think people from all backgrounds and preconceptions will find this show really interesting. It's neutral enough that hardcore anti-drug people and hardcore pro-legalization people will both exclaim "I told you so!" after watching a few episodes. 

This neutral balance contributes a LOT to the viewers' understanding of the drug in question, and lets the audience draw their own conclusions. My reaction to every episode with hard drugs (crack cocaine, meth, heroin) has been "holy shit, I'm glad I have never and will never touch the stuff." For other drugs like cannabis, acid and ecstasy, I am left with the impression that they should be controlled and people should be able to safely make their own choices about them. Hey, don't judge me - Steve Jobs dropped acid

Anyway. I wish I watched this in high school instead of a Just Say No video - Just Say No focuses on the "no", not on the "knowledge". Hey-o! 

The producers venture deep into realms that I thought would be impossible to capture on film. The semi-taboo subject matter just makes the show more interesting to watch. Watching this documentary TV show is like watching Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Law & Order, and Cheech & Chong's Up In Smoke all at once. It's surreal. 

Check the show out, I highly recommend it!