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‘Scanning’ the Darkness of Our War on Drugs

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Posted on May 14, 2006
Keanu Reeves in
Courtesy Warner Independent Pictures

In the upcoming science fiction movie “A Scanner Darkly” Keanu Reeves plays an undercover drug agent who loses his grip on reality as he navigates the underworld of an America that has lost the war on drugs.

By Steven Kotler

  • This article ran in May, but we’re trotting it out again because the movie just hit theaters this week
  • Editor’s note: In this summer’s most talked-about movie, “A Scanner Darkly,” Keanu Reeves stars as an undercover narcotics agent losing his grip on reality in an America that has lost the war on drugs. And were this film just a warning call, that would be one thing. But as Truthdig contributor Steven Kotler argues, the best science fiction can be both predictive and prescriptive. So it’s worth asking: Might this film inadvertently channel us toward the very dystopia it is warning against?

    IF THE BEST science-fictional dystopias are the ones that seem all too believable, this summer’s movie version of “A Scanner Darkly” seems poised to take its place next to Orwell’s “1984,” Huxley’s “Brave New World” and Andrew Niccol’s “Gattaca.”

    Based on a 1977 novel by the late Philip K. Dick (author of works that inspired the movies “Minority Report” and “Total Recall”) and directed by Richard Linklater (“School of Rock,” “Dazed and Confused”), “Scanner” gives us our first look at a post-drug-war America. Twenty percent of the population is addicted to “Substance D”—D for death—a drug that’s 100% addictive and 100% debilitating.

    To fight the plague, our government has turned the lemon of the drug war into the lemonade of totalitarian control. With narco-spies on every corner and informants in every cupboard, Linklater’s movie presents a land where paranoia reigns supreme. Unlike Orwell’s Big Brother iron fist, “A Scanner Darkly” gives us governmental oppression that’s two-thirds mind-fuck and one-third surreal tragedy—in other words, something very akin to what we’re seeing from the Bush administration.



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    Not that this should be too surprising to anyone. But that, at least, may be part of the problem. There is a peculiar and longstanding trend for science fiction to play both a predictive and a prescriptive role in our world. That is, in addition to being a warning call about the police-state possibilities of an ever-escalating drug war, “Scanner” may actually be showing us the way.

    Take our conception of robots, for example. When Carnegie Mellon created its Robot Hall of Fame, one of the earliest inductees was Robbie the Robot from the 1956 MGM flick “Forbidden Planet.” While the term “robot” was coined in 1921 by writer Karl Capek in his play “R.U.R” (Rossum’s Universal Robot), a derivation of the Czech word robata, meaning forced labor, it didn’t creep into popular usage until MGM threw $1.9 million behind “Forbidden Planet” (a blockbuster sum in those days), turning Robbie into the iconic face of a then-burgeoning field. But his impact—the suddenly popular notion that robots must take a humanoid form—influenced the field far more than anticipated. As Wired magazine recently pointed out, “for decades the word robot was synonymous with Robbie’s bulbous figure.” For this reason, scientists spent much of the latter half of the 20th century trying to build machines that fit this cinematic projection, before realizing the fundamental flaws in the humanoid approach (it wasn’t until Honda debuted its android ASIMO in 2000 that anyone got close). Fred Barton, who sits on the Robot Hall of Fame inductee board, sums this up nicely when he says, “It’s been 50 years, but Robbie is still the most imitated and sought-after robot of all time, despite the fact that he was originally the product of a movie studio.”

    Nor is this phenomenon limited to the cinema. Back in 1982, William Gibson wrote “Burning Chrome,” a short story that ran in the now defunct futurist magazine Omni. In that story he posited the notion of “cyberspace” as a sort of mass “consensual hallucination.” This was a good 15 years before the Worldwide Web went worldwide, but a good number of technophiles have argued that Gibson’s predictive fantasy became the model upon which the Internet was built.

    The online treasure trove Wikipedia explains further:

    While cyberspace should not be confused with the real Internet, the term is often used simply to refer to objects and identities that exist largely within the computing network itself, so that a web site, for example, might be metaphorically said to “exist in cyberspace.” According to this interpretation, events taking place on the Internet are not therefore happening in the countries where the participants or the servers are physically located, but “in cyberspace”. This becomes a reasonable viewpoint once distributed services (e.g. Freenet or bittorrent) become widespread, and the physical identity and location of the participants become impossible to determine due to anonymous or pseudonymous communication. The laws of any particular nation state would therefore not apply.


    And in a peculiar combination of mediums, Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” became a very different story in Ridley Scott’s movie “Blade Runner,” but both predicted a bleak environmental future where animals are so rare that robots have replaced pets and a vast underground black market churns on the sale of exotic species. Well, here we are in 2006, and Sony’s AIBO has become the best-selling robot in history and the current Interpol estimate of the exotic pet trade runs to $10 billion a year—an illegal trade figure surpassed only by that of drug dealing.

    Which brings us back to “Scanner.” Dick’s dark prophecy stems not only from his own experiences as an addict but also from his living through the early years of our drug war. In 1972 President Nixon appointed the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse to investigate the country’s burgeoning desire for altered states. The commission suggested that the answer to our woes lay in decriminalization of marijuana and a policy of control based on medical risk. Unfortunately, since Nixon had been elected on a talk-tough, act-rough platform, this was not quite the solution he had in mind. Instead, he militarized the problem, declaring war on drugs and breaking all kinds of laws in an effort to win that fight.

    It seems little has changed. Last week, after what the New York Times reported as “intense pressure from the U.S.,” Mexican President Vicente Fox decided to “reconsider” his desire to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, heroin and cocaine. Never mind that experts on both side of the border felt that such a law would make great strides toward dealing with Mexico’s horrible corruption problem (primarily a graft system built upon its drug war) and addiction problem (Mexico treats addiction as a legal matter, rather than a medical matter). The United States, locked blindly into its zero-tolerance policy against drug possession, and determined to eschew any semblance of creativity or fresh thinking in the fight against drugs, prevailed upon Mexico to abandon its experiment. As always, American puritanical militarization prevails over common sense.

    In the nearly 30 years between Dick’s book and Linklater’s film (the 30 years where sci-fi’s prescriptive tendency would have gone to work), America has amassed a track record of human rights violations to rival most dictatorships in its prosecution of the drug war. Countless people have died or have been incarcerated, and the problem still festers. Today, drugs are cheaper, purer and more readily available than ever before. According to Kevin Zeese, president of Common Sense for Drug Policy, “The U.S. is currently experiencing record levels of overdose deaths, record mentions of drugs in emergency rooms and a 50 percent increase in adolescent drug abuse since 1990,” and all this while the police are reporting record numbers of drug arrests and the largest prison population in world history. Not to mention that we continue to spend about $30 billion a year on a war that the vast majority of experts feel cannot be won.


    As far as the other elements of Dick’s dystopia, well, businesses, schools and government jobs increasingly demand drug tests. Police departments across the country are still using illegal wiretaps and surveillance methods, while undercover stings based on bribery of informants, entrapment and false arrest have become par for the course. The Supreme Court lately held that those illegal searches and invalid warrants do not render the evidence inadmissible so long as the police act in “good faith.” And a good thing too, since last week USA Today reported that the National Security Agency “has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth.” As for property rights, it was U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) who recently summed things up nicely: “Federal and state officials now have the power to seize your business, home, bank account, records and personal property all without indictment, hearing or trial.”

    While we have not yet reached the “Scanner” point where our troops are invading foreign countries under the “auspices” of substance control, we are damn close. Back in 1996, then-“drug czar”  Barry McCaffrey, a retired general, said of the drug war, “It makes us all very uncomfortable to see uniformed military units getting heavily involved.” These days they’re certainly involved. Eighty-nine percent of police departments now have paramilitary units. The National Guard currently has more counter-narcotics officers than the DEA has agents on duty. And, according to the defense contractor trade publication National Defense, DynCorp, a $1.4-billion, 20,000-employee government contractor, “supports drug war operations at both the front and back ends—from airborne crop-dusting in Colombia to asset forfeiture experts who work at 385 Justice Department sites in the United States.” And there are the recent words of then-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft: “I want to escalate the war on drugs. I want to renew it. I want to refresh it, re-launch it if you will.”

    So was Dick just reading the tea leaves or was he, instead, showing us the path of least resistance? Does Linklater’s movie serve as a warning or a way? And will the release of the film pave the way for even more acceptance of abuses of our civil liberties at the hands of authorities? These are perhaps the hard metaphysical questions that surround illicit substances, but before they’re dismissed out of hand, remember that last January the Supreme Court ruled that if you’re pulled over for speeding or not wearing a seat belt or any other negligible driving offense, the cops can bring out drug dogs to further investigate without violating the Fourth Amendment. As writer Thomas Pynchon, himself a sci-fi dabbler, once pointed out, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

    Steven Kotler is a freelance writer whose 2000 novel “The Angle Quickest for Flight” was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. His work has appeared in 31 publications, including The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Wired, Discover, Details and Men’s Journal. His second book, a nonfiction work, “West of Jesus: Surfing, Science and the Origin of Belief,” goes on sale in June.

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    By barsark, April 29, 2011 at 1:40 pm Link to this comment

    I love the movie “A Scanner Darkly” and watched it several times.

    kidney diet

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    By jake johnson, May 12, 2010 at 3:10 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    substance d is another word for xanax. my friend was fine untill his doc prescibed him xanax now he is on one of those farms just like in the movie. dont be fooled by the government stop taking those pills or you will be next please people….......... wake the f### UP!!!

    Report this

    By inter4522, March 22, 2010 at 10:38 am Link to this comment

    Drugs are so bad today. Pills are definitely killing alot of people. These pills are so easy to get.
    qui tam lawyer

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    By joeanderson, February 9, 2010 at 3:21 am Link to this comment

    So, while America heads the toward making the world full of people “hooked” on drugs for Colds, Flu, Allergies, HIV and Malaria as well as Heartburn and Urination*, America does next to nothing to treat drug addiction.

    Some states in the U.S. millions of dollars in PROFIT by their jailing and fining its citizens on minor drug and alcohol course  charges.

    Meth is a very big problem in the U.S. and 100% of the chemicals that create Meth are manufactured and sold by Big Pharma.

    Illicit drug users are all labeled “criminals”. And we all know that to “criminals” the Golden Rule does not apply. If America truly were a “Christian” nation we would not be making drug abusers into criminals, we would be treating them; as in treating their addiction, getting them help, getting them into treatment centers.

    Report this

    By karen32, March 10, 2009 at 11:28 am Link to this comment

    That’s an interesting perspective stating that “the war on drugs” is a joke. I didn’t hear this one before and yes, you could say it’s a joke considering it brought not results. I hope this movie will come with a valuable lesson about drugs, we need it.
    Karen, Drug Treatment Center

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    By Poop Stain, December 18, 2007 at 10:41 am Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    poop smells good

    Report this

    By mutterhals, July 17, 2006 at 12:03 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    “Linklater’s a hack who shouldn’t be allowed to direct catfood commercials, let alone a PKD novel”

    Agreed. And what he did to the ending? Ugghhhh….

    Report this

    By MaoTzu, July 14, 2006 at 7:16 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    PKD was a man who could see what was coming by extrapolating on what was there already. As we should all try to do.

    Just as we can look at the way forces are aligining in the Middle East and see that a world war could be just around the corner if not already here. The US and Israel on one side, and Iran, Russia, and China on the other. We can see the US and Russia contending for allies like India, Pakistan, and others.

    The ways of the world are knowable by looking at the world itself, good sci-fi writers are just doing that.

    And Palestine suffers and the innocent die.

    Report this

    By John Berger, May 28, 2006 at 11:35 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    Great article, and really thought provoking comments here. Outside of the confused Tlazolteotl and moronic Bob Arctor, there are some very inspiring points for this writer and short film maker (me). I’ve often questioned these same themes, such as the above summarized “Might this film inadvertently channel us toward the very dystopia it is warning against?”. Does the fact that we have recently been “informed” of NSA wiretapping and governmental torturing expose the cause, or instead help condition us towards accepting it, and ultimately propelling it into our reality even further?

    Looking from the outside in, I believe it can easily be said that the topics of governmental abuses and state power have largely been questioned with high importance in the past, but now it seems these things largely are being ignored and shoved off as “conspiracy theories”, or at the very least, late night paranoia. Like Kotler’s article suggests, in the past these things were scoffed at as being very far fetched (as in PKD’s era), but now that they are largely becoming true, and even worsened (implantable micro-chips are here, approved use of military assets for ‘quarantines’, no true independent wealth, largely unchecked federal power, ect); Now it’s seems it’s much less of a debate, but a fallacy lost in past ideologies. Shouldn’t we all be screaming uncle from the rooftops, outside of any political/philosophical leanings we may have? Aren’t we creating a system that we’re all being enslaved to, out of fear of so-called ‘terrorism’ or rampant drug users? Which brings us back to a silver-lining point that I think Kotler hits largely on the head here; Who is controlling the mass direction of our culture, and does our activity of exposing such abnormalities either condone or support these directions?

    Either way, great points here, which are getting jotted down in my log.

    “If commies, drug addicts, terrorists, etc. did not exist we would have to invent them.

    We always need some enemy potentially hidden among us in order to justify the use of state power against citizens.”

    “Don’t forget that one of the more sucessful users of illegal drugs is our very own governement.”

    and I think Don Miguel hits it square on the head: “What’s going on now is not about protecting us from either methamphetamine or al Quaeda.”

    And what does the 1% of the population that owns 99% of the worlds wealth have planned for us, and how can a governmental administration with less that 30% of a public approval rating be so confident about itself? What do they know that we don’t, and who is governing who?

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    By Tlazolteotl, May 19, 2006 at 11:53 am Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    Also a PKD fan, as well as a fan of other dystopian sci-fi (John Brunner, anyone?), I would agree with Jason Kennedy’s comment that I really don’t see the point of this article.  The most interesting dots Kotler connects (exotic animal smuggling) don’t even have to do with “A Scanner Darkly” but with “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.”  Seems this article could have been better thought out - either longer to explore the his “prescriptive” theme re sci-fi (and I have to say, I’m not really convinced of that), or to restrict the article strictly to “Scanner” without the distractions of other PKD works or Gibson. 

    By the way, Brunner wrote about the Internet a decade before Gibson went there, in “Shockwave Rider,” so I’m not even sure Kotler knows his sci-fi well enough to be expositing on this subject.  Perhaps he should have stuck to a movie review - but, oh, wait - that means he would have to have actually seen the movie.

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    By david, May 17, 2006 at 6:39 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    I think it’s time for a 21st
    century Boston Tea Party:
    “Nuclear Bomb Tea” anyone?

    Report this

    By coal_train, May 17, 2006 at 12:46 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    If commies, drug addicts, terrorists, etc. did not exist we would have to invent them.

    We always need some enemy potentially hidden among us in order to justify the use of state power against citizens.

    The drug warriors are not necessarily opposed to the idea of having a drugged populace, as long as Pfizer et al. profit.

    Report this

    By RAVE, May 16, 2006 at 4:44 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    Well, don’t lose any sleep over the talking points here because the film itself will put you to sleep after the first 30 minutes. I saw a test screening here in Santa Monica, CA, and I predict the film will not speed the DEA into “scramble suits”. To the actors’ credit, the performances are ALL great. But this is a talking head of a movie, lots of lengthy exposition, and the animation adds very little. Minority Report was much more visual and involving.

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    By G. Anderson, May 15, 2006 at 11:30 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    Scanner Darkly is about drugs, there’s no denying it. However, as PKD often did in his works it is only a vehicle to explore the larger issue of our very sanity.

    How do we know that, we are sane or insane? What sign posts mark our way and lead us to the conclusion that we are perfectly rational?

    It is Mr. Dick’s view that reason is a kind of dream, a kind of disguise for actions that makes us seem completely sane. But that ultimately reason itself is just another dream, from which his protagonists struggle to awaken.

    Just as the Nazi’s viewed their actions as reasonable, sane and well thought through, we now accumulate millions of tons of Nuclear Weapons, yet are willing to destroy the world to prevent others from possessing them.

    We have used the vast powers of scientific reasoning to create weapons we can never use.

    Reason or fear?

    Underneath the thought coverings we so cleaverly construct, we may yet be surprised to find out just exactly what we really are.

    What maniac would ever view their actions as anything but reasonable and appropriate, and completely justified under the current political curcumstances?

    Who would vote for a madman?

    Report this

    By brown, May 15, 2006 at 10:04 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    funny, american airforce pilots do drugs all the time. Now there’s a war ‘on’ drugs.

    Report this

    By Nuggets, May 15, 2006 at 9:47 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    Don’t foget that one of the more sucessful users of illegal drugs is our very own governement. They use the funds in covert operations because its not traceable. (google: cia and drugs). it is another brilliant government racket: make them illegal in one breath and import them in next breath. Criminalizing drug use promotes the prision industrial complex.

    Report this

    By CV, May 15, 2006 at 9:16 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    I only wish it was a joke. The War on Drug Users and the So Called War on Terrrrrrrr have been the little cat’s feet that fascism has snuck in on.

    Report this

    By AlphaCentauri, May 15, 2006 at 8:18 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    Time for a 21st Century “Boston Tea Party”, Ganja Tea anyone?

    Report this

    By Ga, May 15, 2006 at 6:07 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    It is terrible how America declares War on it’s own people.

    The War on Drugs, a twist of words… It’s roots were in the War on Poverty, a noble thing, like War on Smallpox. The “Wars” on many a disease have largely been won, so far as those diseases affected those close to those in control of governmental services. The wars on HIV/Aids and Malaria—largely effecting the poor and disenfranchised and the 3rd world—have lapsed into treatment and not erradication “Wars.”

    So, while America heads the toward making the world full of people “hooked” on drugs for Colds, Flu, Allergies, HIV and Malaria as well as Heartburn and Urination*, America does next to nothing to treat drug addiction.

    Some states in the U.S. millions of dollars in PROFIT by their jailing and fining its citizens on minor drug charges.

    Meth is a very big problem in the U.S. and 100% of the chemicals that create Meth are manufactured and sold by Big Pharma.

    Illicit drug users are all labeled “criminals”. And we all know that to “criminals” the Golden Rule does not apply. If America truly were a “Christian” nation we would not be making drug abusers into criminals, we would be treating them; as in treating their addiction, getting them help, getting them into treatment centers.

    Oh no, wait… We are a “Christian” nation… Anything that makes your feel good is BAD and must be punished! No smoke for you!

    The Human and Compassionate thing to do is to at least de-criminalize many drugs. It is a horrible and hypocritical thing to say that tobacco and alcohol are NOT bad drugs at the same time saying the Pot and Peyote ARE bad drugs.

    But, noooooooo!, we have too many “Christians” running this coutry who scream bloody murder that someone smoked a joint in college! while they down some valium with a martini and a cigar.

    We need needle swapping programs. We need condom availability programs. We need treatment an not incarceration.

    But perhaps we need education most of all.

    *In America we have gigantic media campaigns to effect people diets, like “drink 8 tall glasses of water a day,” as well as giving us low fat, high sugar foods, and at the same time providing us with drugs to counter those campaigns with drugs to help prevent frequent urination and heartburn.

    Report this

    By jason kennedy, May 15, 2006 at 5:48 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    well, i love PKD, and i’m interested in the issues raised in this piece. but i have to say, i see no genuine direction in the “argument” laid out here, which basically seems to be, “if a writer imagines an undesirable set of circumstances, well, maybe that’s bad, because it lays down pathways in the public’s consciousness for those bad things to actually happen.”

    is that what it amounts to?

    the notion of the cautionary tale goes all the way back to Prometheus, so i can’t fathom what the writer is talking about.

    but does it matter? because in the democratic blogosphere, the writers of these articles never read or respond to criticisms anyway.

    Report this

    By Delta9, May 15, 2006 at 4:41 pm Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    I think it’s time for a 21st Century “Boston Tea Party”.....Ganja Tea Anyone?

    Report this

    By felicity smith, May 15, 2006 at 11:59 am Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    Street drugs are in direct competition with prescribed drugs.  Guess which pushers end up putting more money into congressional coffers.

    Report this

    By Bob Arctor, May 15, 2006 at 11:10 am Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    Linklater’s a hack who shouldn’t be allowed to direct catfood commercials, let alone a PKD novel.

    Report this

    By fascistsbowdowntome, May 15, 2006 at 9:23 am Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    the drug war is about disenfranchising voters of brown color, not about drug use at all.

    would a peaced out society would be even easier from THEM to bamboozle?

    Report this

    By Don Miguel, May 15, 2006 at 7:35 am Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    The war on drugs is both a joke and a ruse. Big Tobacco has killed more people for much longer than any currently illegal drug. The controls are being put in place and introduced to us slowly so that when the real trouble starts, (catastrophic blowback from global warming, a genuine pandemic—not avian flu dress rehearsal… and so on) real power can be exercised. What’s going on now is not about protecting us from either methamphetamine or al Quaeda.

    Report this

    By Kevin McClure, May 15, 2006 at 12:25 am Link to this comment
    (Unregistered commenter)

    The “war on drugs” is a joke. Some time ago Bush
    said he was going to shut down government programs that were “ineffective”, so why not the DEA? On one hand they say “drugs are bad” then
    flood you with commercials for drugs. How many people a year die from pot overdoses? Plenty die
    from “legal” drugs.

    Report this
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