Drugs As Weapons Against Us


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Drugs As Weapons Against Us
"An explosive cocktail whose primary ingredient is batshit."

I am to some extent loath to review Drugs As Weapons Against Us because to do so may confer upon it a degree of legitimacy it does not deserve. I will endeavour to say no kind thing that could be taken out of context as praise, but may not succeed. Somewhere in this 'film' is the germ, however mired in tedium, of an idea that might be interesting, but it is poorly and then madly developed as to be obscured.

Two hours is too long to endure this sub-YouTube tedium, a début effort from writer/director/producer John Potash. The narration is provided by a John Barron, but there are two voiceover artists of that name and one assumes that whichever of them cashed the cheque attributes the work to the other. It opens with the title dropping word by word with a banging noise and a voice that sounds a bit like Cops or one of those clip shows of carnage presented by a kindly former Sheriff that are always on if you have insomnia as part of your television package.

As it draws a line between banking provided during the Opium Wars to the death of Tupac and beyond I must give it some credit for not being obviously anti-Semitic but as it haphazardly skips and jumps around what might be its thesis it re-uses elements that do not work in its favour for a variety of reasons.

It has 17 pages of footnotes - I say footnotes and not credits because it includes image attributions and mis-spelled URLs for blog posts, worthy consideration when one image from Wikimedia commons is used some six or seven times. The music (small stretches of which are used again and again) isn't credited by song, and I was to some extent discomfited that it makes big mention of featuring a work (or works?) by Mopreme Shakur but as far as I could tell only did so in segments directly relating to his step-brother Tupac and Mutulu Shakur their (step-)father. The 'film' also uses the phrase "radical blacks" which felt somewhat of a red-flag in context.

I say 'film' because this is a meandering mess, the kind of conspiratorial nonsense that makes one regret every minute spent dealing with it. I took some seven pages of notes as I watched a screener before I realised I was wasting my time and would be wasting yours if you left with the impression that this was worth any, and I mean any, of yours.

It is a litany of logical fallacies, managing to actually beg the question at times rather than just fail to ask the right ones, though there's plenty of that. There are photocopied pages, dog-eared and underlined, there are screenshots of websites with the adverts (local transport nursing jobs!) still intact. There are video segments that are so Nineties they hurt, there are bits of testimony that appear to be credible only because they come from figures of authority, and there's also a chunk or two of Nick Broomfield's documentaries Kurt & Courtney and Biggie & Tupac. It's always a mistake to reference other films when they might be better than yours, but it's even worse I suppose to just lift scenes from them especially when they don't really support your argument.

If, indeed, argument it is. There's a credit for legal services but I was dumbfounded by one of the film's allegations, to wit that having been groomed as an underage prostitute and LSD smuggler, Courtney Love had Kurt killed on the orders of her CIA handlers because he had found the right stomach medicine and was no longer addicted to heroin so couldn't be used to help control youth movements. I mean, fucking hell, it makes the stuff about the assassinations of RFK and JFK and MLK seem normal, and those are A1 prime conspiracy fodder.

It talks about Operation Paperclip but not the moon landings, it talks about LSD but not about its differing legality, it points out that all these Baby Boomers in counter-culture had parents who were in the military without considering why, it throws various accusations about and it leaves gaps in its tale that you can fill in if you know other things but none of this really matters because it is not only stupid but it is boring. I will usually give credit to film-makers for the very act of making a film, but I would try to avoid it here because in adapting his own book Potash has created something that suggests he cannot properly tell a story or advance an argument.

The notion that the CIA might operate illegally or barely licitly within the US is not a new one (see, just off the top of my head, Sicario) and the connection between various US institutions is one often drawn on (Skull + Bones) but the film does not use words like 'colonial' when it can say COINTELPRO and is more concerned with MKULTRA than, say, Marxism. It talks at one point about 'America's Longest Running War' and it means Afghanistan/Enduring Freedom but what it could have been talking about is its war on minorities. Again and again it seems to come close to understanding how the confection of wealth, power, and other forms of privilege result in dissimilar policing and violence against groups who challenge that status quo, be they foreign or domestic.

It talks about colonial legacies without examining the fact that America first colonised itself, it talks about the East India Trading Company without coming close to the notion that the War of Independence was itself an English (and I use the word advisedly) Civil War, it talks about power and control while missing again and again the actual levers and looking for a driving force beyond man's innate capacity to be a dick.

It draws the wrong conclusions from the presence of cousins in counterculture with family in federal government, and keeps putting weight on relationships between people and relatives in the military without ever looking at the demographic realities of the era between World Wars and the end of compulsory draft. It's also, and I can't stress this enough, boring and wrong. There's an argument within it that the global drugs trade supports the stock market, but the figures don't add up. The argument is based on someone once in government's assertion that a drug dealer on the corner sells $350 a day, 250 days a year, and 50% of that is profit, and mumbo jumbo a trillion dollars. USGDP has been higher than that since 1969 (I looked it up) and the best estimate I could find suggests the entire global drug trade was about half a trillion, and even beyond that the figures for what someone dealing drugs on the corner is making are a nonsense and there's good research ("An Economic Analysis of a Drug-Selling Gang's Finances, Levitt and Venkatesh, 1998) right there to look at. It took me seconds to find those figures and that reference, but I knew something about that subject in advance.

Which also leads to another vexing issue, which is that criticism this fierce might be argued as part of some effort of one State or another to shut down this argument. It isn't. Misunderstandings this profound are a sadness, so much effort has gone into this that it feels genuinely wasteful, so scattershot is it in its accusations and 'logical' leaps that I am as dizzied as I am disappointed. Perhaps the saddest thing is that the notion concealed in its ineptitude is an interesting one, but it is not so much that it fails to make its point but that its point points towards an argument the audience must construct themselves from actual facts and not this confection of nonsense. It manages to get things that are complicated wrong, and it manages to get things wrong in ways that are confirmed as incorrect by the things that it is quoting. At one point it refers to something from 'London's Daily Guardian' and any observer of UK newspapers would see at least one way that was wrong, but that sort of inaccuracy is a different kind than believing the word of someone who claimed to be in the FBI while attempting bigamy.

There's a Lenny Bruce quote illustrated with what I believe to be a t-shirt design (from a company that no longer sell it) and it gives SS emigré Klaus Barbie the credit he allegedly gave himself for helping to hunt Che Guevara, but it does so in a way that manages to miss the influences of counter-insurgency techniques generated against the Maquis and Resistance and their influence on operations in Vietnam and Algiers and how tactics are often transferred without regard to provenance and how organisations change and half a hundred other things than would be more clever than suggesting that some very rich very dead very white dudes invented the CIA so they could get young people hooked on drugs.

I don't recall it even mentioning the Prohibition, or Greenwood, Tulsa, or any of dozens of things that might have supported a version of its thesis that was tethered to reality rather than an explosive cocktail whose primary ingredient is batshit.

Reviewed on: 22 Jan 2019
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Drugs As Weapons Against Us packshot
A documentary asserting that the CIA manipulated musicians and activists to promote drugs for social control, particularly regarding the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, and that some musicians that resisted these manipulations were killed.

Director: John Potash

Writer: John Potash

Starring: Ed Opperman, Bobby Seale

Year: 2018

Runtime: 120 minutes

Country: US


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