Rachel Seifert explores the overt and hidden costs of the ‘war on drugs’ in her documentary essay, Cocaine Unwrapped. From the environmental and human costs of the drug war in South America and beyond to the impacts of incarceration and street violence, the film is a meticulous portrayal of an intractable international problem with cocaine as one of the world’s prime drugs and most dangerous commodity.

The controversial, multibillion dollar “war on drugs” led by governments in the USA and South America is the subject of Rachel Seifert’s documentary, Cocaine Unwrapped. Travelling from the streets of Baltimore to the violent suburbs of Juarez, Mexico, the film ventures deep into the coca producing regions of Bolivia and Colombia, bringing forth an urgent story of crisis proportions. With remarkable access to both powerful players as well as powerless victims, the film questions the ethical premise guiding the “war,” while simultaneously presenting constructive alternatives to the current policy approach.


Seifert presents a compelling case to question the contemporary validity of the outdated “war on drugs” policy initiated by US President Nixon in 1971, and devised during a vastly different socio-economic reality. the film opens on the streets of Baltimore where urban decline has replaced the middleclass prosperity of suburban neighbourhoods, accompanied by large-scale unemployment and poverty. Retired policeman Franklin identifies the underlying problems such as lack of education and career opportunities, conditions that have steadily worsened over the last three decades in American society. Using long distance telephoto cinematography, the camera captures street drug deals amongst the young, mostly black population. It’s worth drawing a parallel with The Interrupters (2010, Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz) which explores similar subject matter of escalating, drug-related violence and the high incidence of teenage murders amongst the youth of Chicago. Both works identify the failure of conventional law enforcement and suggest a complete reanalysis of this issue from a socio-economic perspective instead of a criminal justice one. Using hard facts, Seifert critiques US domestic law enforcement and judicial systems which have resulted in nearly half a million mostly African Americans prisoners being incarcerated on drug-related charges in American jails. She gains access to Erik Thompson, a convicted drug dealer in the Maryland Prison Facility who suggests that the social costs of incarceration in the form of ongoing stigmatisation and disadvantage are perhaps greater than any benefits of this  form of punishment.

Using a comparative approach, Seifert constructs an optimistic narrative which is at once critical of the impacts of the hard line ‘war on drugs’ while also offering alternative models which are proving more effective. Using the examples of Colombia and Bolivia, the narrative explores the dissimilar policy approach employed by the two nations. With financial support from the US, Colombia is waging a violent, indiscriminate attack on rural farmlands in the hope of targeting coca plantations. The camera accompanies army regiments at work, manually destroying coca and food crops, while also abusing the human rights of the farmers. There is a desperate and hopeless feel to the whole operation as the camera focuses on the helpless farmers who watch their food crops razed to the ground. In addition, aerial pesticide sprays finish off anything that is left standing.

Cocaine Unwrapped, directed by Rachael Seifert

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