Nov. 1, 2012 03:10

The War at Home

[caption id="attachment_24415" align="alignleft" width="300"] Photo by Derek Hallquist[/caption]

Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live Inpaints the War on Drugs as a costly failure

I was reminded of Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In while driving home to Pasadena recently. The latest film by the New York-based author and documentary filmmaker, whose works include Why We Fight, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, Reagan and Freakonomics, is a condemnation of America’s failed “War on Drugs.” Not because the war hasn’t made arrests or jailed people. It has—disproportionate numbers of people of color. But precisely because it’s been so successful at that, all the while the demand for and the trade of drugs has grown.

These social realities became more apparent than ever to me when I watched from my car as a cop car pulled up alongside a trio of white teens on foot. The car stopped so the cop could eye the kids suspiciously. The boys looked back and then sauntered off. From firsthand experience, I know young black teens would probably not have been so blasé—or lucky—in a similar situation. More than likely, they all would have been detained and one or all of them would have been arrested for something, anything, even if they weren’t holding illegal drugs.

From where I sit as a black woman, it’s not hard to understand how we’ve gotten to the place where nationwide the country has a trail of stories of young blacks killed by cops or those in authority. The deaths of Kendrec McDade, Treyvon Martin, Derek Williams and Chavis Carter are just the latest in this sad story.

Jarecki is known for asking tough questions, and his latest film is no exception. As the film aptly quotes, “40 years, $1 trillion, 45 million arrests.” “How did we get here?” said Jarecki when asked about the driving question behind making this film. “The problem I face is people don’t know—so few people have it on their radar.”

When I met with Jarecki, he referred to the Drug War as, “immoral,” something that “yielded no public good.” It’s an ironic turn of phrase, given this nation’s historical preoccupation with morality. Prohibition, for example was deeply rooted in moral concerns. Even the War on Drugs has connections to a moral impulse. President Richard Nixon, after all, declared a war on drug abuse in the early 1970s. There was a concern for those plagued by addiction in that statement, even if it went haywire.

With the help of the leadership of successive presidents, Nixon’s war would morph into a situation in which today the nation’s prison population has grown by 705 percent, with 1 in 100 adults behind bars.

Marijuana, in particular, has become a kind of cause célèbre these days. The failed Drug War is repeated often in the same breath as the terms "medical marijuana" or "pot dispensaries."

Is the Drug War a failure?

Of course it is. And this punitive war has only served to ensnare working poor and minorities, particularly blacks, in a cycle of self-destruction, as men and women get lost to incarceration.

While Jarecki supports changing current drugs laws, he says “the public cannot look to a potential leader to change this.”

Change rests with us.

Homeland Insecurity

The House I Live In takes us through the history of drug use in the U.S. and how historically the recreational use of drugs was tolerated among the affluent, but punished among the poor—from immigrant Chinese workers using opium, to Mexican laborers smoking marijuana. Jarecki's film seeks to chronicle the inconsistent and discriminatory history behind drug policy. It shows how the poor and people of color have been unequally treated under the law. It suggests that we need better laws and treatment alternatives for those impacted.

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