In case you haven’t heard, drugs are bad. I know, I know, but it’s even deeper than you think. You see, the decades-strong “War On Drugs” that’s hammered that message deep into the brain of anyone with access to any form of media is itself a cause of human tragedy. To call the anti-drug initiative a failure is an understatement. As opposed protecting the public like countless politicians promised, The “War On Drugs” has clogged prison systems with inmates and created racial and class disparities that unfairly targets disenfranchised urban youths and minorities. Eugene Jarecki’s riveting new documentary The House I Love In studies and exposes the failings of America’s narcotics policies and did so effectively enough to earn the director a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for his efforts. Given all of the anti-drug propaganda we’re forced to swallow on a daily basis, this bitter pill of a film demands to be seen. Even if you’re well versed in the facts and issues that Jarecki trots out, the material is collected, organized, and presented in such a way that will tear your guts out and infuriate you all over again.
Jarecki enters the story from a personal perspective. Raised in a wealthy white family, he had an African American housekeeper/caregiver growing up who was appropriately named Nannie Jeter. Nannie essentially raised the director, but spent so much time doing so that she sadly had to neglect the upbringing of her own children living in an inner-city community. Her children are now serving time in prison on drug charges and that sets Jarecki out on a 20-state journey to explore the failure of this cultural war. He films/interviews police, inmates, judges, and prison profiteers with impressive candidness and honestly, but perhaps the most intriguing voices in the project come from unlikely sources. The Wire creator David Simon appears throughout the film, drawing from his 12-year background as a police reporter to expose various hypocrisies, while historian Richard Lawrence Miller explores the race issue central to the drug war. Even though only 13% of US crack users are African American (a number representative of their percentage in the population as a whole), 90% of those serving time for charges related to the drug are black. Miller describes drug war as a virtual holocaust with a capitalist, racist system designed to unfairly target a specific community.
That might sound like an exaggeration, but it is in fact a frightening reality. Part of the Reagan administrations disgusting legacy on the drug war was creating a 100:1 disparity in drug charges related to crack versus powder cocaine (for example, someone convicted for possessing 5 grams of crack will receive sentencing equivalent to someone possessing 500 grams of cocaine). The reasoning for this was sadly just as simple as it was dirty. The law was passed in the 80s when Wall Street folks snorted more coke before breakfast than Charlie Sheen’s “wives” huff up in a week, while crack was pretty well confined to the ghettos. The difference between the effects of the drugs was marginal, the only difference was the race and socioeconomic status of the users. Now, Jarecki is quick to acknowledge that the Obama administration lowered the ratio to 18:1, but the scars of that racist policy remain in a prison system overflowing with unfairly prosecuted urban youths who have little to no chance of finding a job on release.
The racism tied to the issue runs even deeper than that single policy. According to Simon, police officers are often paid additional fees for drug related arrests and awarded overtime for processing those responsible. So, certain communities are hit constantly to rack up the arrests and bonuses (Jarecki even gets one officer to admit that his station often runs on confiscated drug money and vehicles). There’s little incentive for cops to spend long hours tracking down other criminals like murderers or robbers, so petty drug crimes become the focus and police are driven by greed. These communities also tend to be predominantly African American thanks to racist 50s housing policies that relegated poor black families to ghettos, a shifting economy that pulled all of the labor jobs out of those areas making poor families unemployed families, and a networkof drug dealers who formed because it’s one of their community’s few viable employment options. Dealers are respected in the community because they are amongst the few residents with money and bonds form. Over several generations, it’s become a self-sustaining industry and deliberately or not the drug industry was formed by government policy. The rise of crystal meth has lead to large numbers of white middle American dealers/convicts (see Breaking Bad for more), but there’s no denying the 50 year epidemic forced onto on specific portion of the population.
Jarecki ably explores these issues and more in a concise, informative, and emotionally devastating manner. His film is constructed out of talking heads and observational filming. It’s not a groundbreaking film in terms of form or structure, but the depth and detail achieved is remarkable and that’s all that matters with this sort of thing. Given that taking a hard stance on the War On Drugs is an easy way for any politician to gather votes and that a multi-billion dollar industry has grown out of the US’ obscene prison population (more prisoners per capita than anywhere else in the world! Yay!), it’s unlikely to stop any time soon. The anti-drug stance is widely known and little help is needed to get information about that perspective on the issue. However, how that issue has been manipulated and abused over the years is far less obvious to the public. According to Jacrecki’s film, back when Nixon launched the drug war 2/3 of the funding was dedicated to the treatment and recovery of addicts while a fraction of the trillion dollars spent since has actually been dedicated to that since. Why stop addiction when there is so much money to be made from the victims? That’s the sort of sobering fact you’ll leave the theater furiously mulling over after watching The House I Live In. There need to be more films on this subject out there even if it’s impossible that they could ever all be this good.