An Interview with Cocaine Unwrapped Director - Rachel Seifert.

Levent Akbulut from the Students for Sensible Drug Policy UK interviews Rachel Seifert the Director of Cocaine Unwrapped.


Rachel, can you tell TalkingDrugs readers what Cocaine Unwrapped is all about?


Cocaine Unwrapped is a film about the human costs of the war on drugs and the damage that current drugs policies are causing. It shows the extent of this destruction by following the cocaine trade from coca production in Colombia and Bolivia, through to trafficking in Mexico and Ecuador, and up to the consumer countries in the United States and UK. The film treats the issue of drugs policy within a new framework – portraying it as one of human rights and economic and social development. And as well as looking at the harms of current policies it also explores alternative policies being pursued in Bolivia and Ecuador. 


What drove you to make the documentary?


Firstly, I have always been interested in illegal drugs since I was first introduced to them at university – mostly how different the reality of what I saw around me was to what I had heard or seen in the media or been told at school. Virtually everyone I knew, from all walks of life, were happy to take them, and were so care free about them – often ‘respectable’ people with everyday jobs from teachers to lawyers to doctors. I think cocaine is the most interesting of the drugs – possibly because of the glamour associated with it, possibly because of the problematic nature of it. 


Secondly, I was fascinated by the politics behind the drugs policies – so much corruption, foreign policy, domestic politics, power. I was very interested in what was going on in Latin America at the heart of the destructive drug policies – both the continual damage in Colombia and the new violence in Mexico, but also how things over there were starting to change – as Bolivia moves towards a peaceful approach and Ecuador moves away from criminalisation. 


With various hints that drug policy was potentially making a slow move forward, it seemed like the time was right to make a film such as this.  


I noticed that in the documentary you didn’t focus on the UK as much. Why was that?


I focused the consumption section mostly in the US – partly because it is by far the largest consumer nation, partly because there was a clear trail we could follow from Latin America through Mexico to the US, and partly because the domestic drug laws over there are harsher than in the UK and so that was the story we wanted to focus on. 


What would you say was the high point of making the documentary?


Making the documentary has been a fascinating and eye-opening experience. I have had the privilege to meet the people caught up along the route of the drugs trade and affected by the drug war and had the opportunity to tell their stories. 

One highpoint was interviewing President Morales of Bolivia and President Correa of Ecuador, and hearing their personal stories which have driven their passion to try to change these repressive policies which are destroying their countries and people.


Were there any major realisations that you had when making it?


Yes, definitely. Firstly, before I made the film I don’t think I fully appreciated the huge extent of the issues, how complicated a topic it is, and how fraught it is with politics, money, and morality.


Also, whilst making the film I realised how hard it was to break out of the small drug policy world when dealing with this issue. The ‘drug’ label closed doors and put shutters down before anything else could be said. For instance, a lot of human rights and development organisations who were working out in Latin America, and who I presumed would be involved in working with those people affected by the cocaine trade or the drugs policies, seemed to almost ignore the issue, despite it being one of the biggest and most destructive on their doorstep. 


Additionally, it did amaze me after speaking to a range of consumers the sheer lack of knowledge of basic issues surrounding their drug of choice. People who claimed to be ethical and socially conscious, yet happily take cocaine without thinking about where it comes from or the damage that is caused in getting it to them. I presumed people knew about this, but there was a huge lack of knowledge and education on these issues. 


What was the saddest thing you saw while making the documentary?


I think the most heart rendering was meeting the drug addicted children in Mexico City. Many had been taking crack or cocaine since they were 8-9 years old - they were so young, and still kids, yet they had experienced so much of life – they had left home, running away from poverty or violence, and lived on the streets where they were treated badly by society and the police. They wanted to hold hands and clung onto me like young kids do, but it was really difficult to film. 


These kids did have some hope through the local youth/treatment centre which had taken them in and was teaching them skills so that they might be able to get a job and integrate back into society – something like making bread rolls so that they could set up their own stall, or they paired up with local businesses who supported the scheme and offered the kids jobs. I thought this was a real achievement considering the stigma in the UK of employing people with drug addictions. While initiatives like this were rare, what we saw of it in Mexico was a good example of how we could help these kids. 



Was there any point at which you were worried about your life?


In Colombia and Mexico there were moments when I felt pretty uncomfortable. Before this trip I had never seen such a military presence in a town. That was especially the case in Colombia when we flew to the small town of Tumaco in a tiny plane and when you land, you’re on a military base, surrounded by military planes and helicopters and army personnel who were there to patrol the local town and coca growers and cocaine producers. In Ciudad Juarez in northern Mexico, the streets were patrolled by the very visible federal police, local police and the military which gives the city a threatening presence. There were 5-6 murders a day on average that you would hear about in the city, and we saw a few recently dead bodies on the ground. For me it was a shock to see young kids lying dead on the floor with a bullet hole through their head. It was weird though, because we were there for a few days and in a terrible way you kind of get used to it. Kids hang out on the streets and for them hearing about or seeing murders was quite normal.  


Tell me about the most interesting person you met.


I found the women mules in Ecuador some of the most interesting characters I met. These were just normal single mothers with three or four kids desperately trying to bring money in and provide their children with food and clothes. They had no idea what drugs they were even carrying, it was just a job which they needed to do to support their family. They were intelligent and honest ordinary women just trying to get by. 


What do you think the leaders of Latin America want us to do in the consumer nations?


I think they want us to take responsibility for the fact that we are driving demand – but to take responsibility in an effective and humane way – to move away from repression and jails and towards proper education, prevention, and treatment. I think they also want us to take responsibility for our policies not only domestically but also internationally so that there is more space for a proper debate.


Do you think as a society we will ever learn to manage cocaine?


I think that society needs to acknowledge that people will always use drugs, they always have done and they always will do. It may be the case that cocaine comes in and out of fashion but it will always be there. I hope that we will one day learn how to manage drugs so it causes the least harm to individuals and society - with real proper honest education, and treatment and health care to match, hopefully you can keep the demand low and controlled. 


What do you hope the audience gets out of it?


Firstly, I hope people will look at drugs in a different framework and they will see this as an issue of human rights, development, and socio-economic justice and this is how we need to be looking at drugs policy. I hope this will help more and a wider variety of organisations to approach and get involved in the issue.


Secondly, I hope that people will see our policies aren’t working and are actually causing much more harm than good. And that by putting a human face to the drug war, we see clearly that the policies are causing more damage than the drugs themselves. I hope that this will make people think about supporting alternative policies. 


The third thing I want people to take away is that if they do consume cocaine, they are responsible and they should think about campaigning to change the laws - and joining groups such as SSDP. If people want to take cocaine, that is their choice – but it should be an informed and responsible choice. We are never going to stop people from taking drugs but those who do take it and who want to carry on taking it should take responsibility.


Are you planning a DVD release of the documentary - and where can people see it?


The film will be available for public screenings, online screenings, and DVD sales from our website at - the online release is out and the DVD release will be out shortly. Also you can join our facebook page at Cocaine Unwrapped to keep updated with the latest news on the film and the issues it raises.


Rachel Seifert is the Director of Cocaine Unwrapped - a new documentary feature exploring the impact of the cocaine trade from producer through to consumer nations.


Students for Sensible Drug Policy UK will be screening Cocaine Unwrapped up and down the country over the 2011/2012 academic year.