‘Narcos’ Director Says Drugs Should Be Treated as a Health Problem, Not a Police Problem

By Victoria Kim 09/15/15

Jose Padilha has joined a growing chorus declaring the war on drugs a failure.

Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar. Photo via

The last 30 years of drug policy in the U.S. has failed, a policy long defined by "Just Say No" and a combative approach to what’s really a health issue, said executive producer and director of the Netflix series Narcos, Jose Padilha.

“You’d have to be a simpleton to buy that,” Padilha said, referring to the "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign of the 1980s and early 1990s, championed by former First Lady Nancy Reagan. “We wouldn’t have our current policy without people who think like that,” Padilha added.

Instead of policing the drug supply, which has defined the decades-long American war on drugs, Padilha says the real issue lies elsewhere. “Drugs, like any commodity, are about supply and demand. Demand comes from addiction. That’s what we need to be looking at,” he said.

A better approach would be to address the issue at its root, the people who fuel the demand for illicit drugs in the U.S. “We’ve been treating it as a police problem. It’s a health problem,” he said. “So maybe it would be better to invest our money in the health system and deal with the people who are addicted to drugs.”

Padilha, who made a name for himself as a Brazilian filmmaker behind Bus 174 and Elite Squad, interviewed DEA agents in the field, Pablo Escobar’s lieutenants and lawyers, the Colombian police, and President Carlos Gaviria, whom Escobar attempted to assassinate.

The takeaway from the Escobar era should be that “the Nancy Reagan ‘Just Say No’ approach doesn’t work,” Padilha said. “So many people have died and there were so many dead bodies.” Escobar’s top hit man, John Jairo Velasquez, has been tied to the murders of at least 3,000 people, including a presidential candidate and 107 people on Avianca Airlines Flight 203.

No one could stand in the way of Escobar’s empire, and Narcos, which tells all sides of the drug war, shows the breadth of Escobar's power.

The series, which premiered on Netflix on Aug. 28, will return for a second season sometime in 2016.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr