Movie review: Documentary reveals profound failure of U.S. ‘war on drugs’
In the four-plus decades since President Nixon launched the so-called “war on drugs,” declaring illegal street drugs a national scourge, the U.S. has spent about $1 trillion on anti-drug campaigns and made some 45 million arrests. And yet today the scourge festers on, virtually unchanged.
In his powerhouse investigative documentary, “The House I Live In,” filmmaker Eugene Jarecki (“Why We Fight”) amasses an impressive array of damning statistics and wide-ranging talking-head interviews to build a case that our nation’s war on drugs is at best wholly ineffectual and at worst a war on race.
In the criminal pecking order established by “tough on drugs” lawmakers, Jarecki notes that minorities in alarming numbers suffer the brunt of harsh laws. African Americans, for instance, comprise about 13 percent of cocaine users, yet they make up 90 percent of the prison population. While the U.S. has about five percent of the world’s population, it has 23 percent of its prisoners, including about half a million incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses. There are more blacks today in prison than there were slaves in 1850 America, the filmmaker asserts.
Bolstering his barrage of statistics, Jarecki offers up a potent array of interview subjects, from both left and right, to fuel the debate. From a New Mexico border marshal to a Yonkers street dealer and from Harvard professors to U.S. district court judges, anecdotal evidence of the sociologically complex layers of the national epidemic abounds.
Among the most articulate viewpoints offered is that of Mike Carpenter, an Oklahoma prison guard and self-proclaimed “law and order guy,” who observes that punitive drug laws essentially support a national prison system that many small communities rely on to provide jobs and economic lifeblood. A continuous stream of non-violent drug offenders is needed to fuel that system, Carpenter says.
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