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The House I Live In, Eugene Jarecki’s documentary about the 40-year so-called War on Drugs, is so one-sided and unrelenting it makes you feel sorry for the dealers and addicts whom we see crossing paths with the law. Unless you’re Nancy Reagan or a particularly punitive straightedge, you’ll likely be convinced that this is a war that’s too costly, too destructive, and too stupid to go on.
It all started with President Richard Nixon declaring drug abuse “America’s Public Enemy No. 1.” And it’s continued ever since, with filmmaker Jarecki and his commentators arguing that that’s probably not going to change: As one Oklahoma cop puts it, policy leaders have become “victims of the soundbite,” choosing to wave their figurative pistols in the air as they promise to punish anyone involved with drugs or risk appearing soft on crime. The rhetoric of one president after another is shown here, with Barack Obama appearing the sole exception, having signed a bill that reduces the disparity in sentencing between those caught with crack and those caught with powdered cocaine.
Jarecki traces back to the beginning of drug laws, reminding us that once cocaine, heroin, and opium were legally enjoyed by different walks of life. And he connects those laws to race: The first criminalization was of opium-smoking in California, where a lot of Chinese immigrants used the drug. Then came laws rolled out against coke (used by blacks) and marijuana (Mexicans). “These laws set up a very dangerous precedent of racial control,” Jarecki says in narration. And crack? According to stats, whites use it more than minorities, yet 95 percent of felons arrested for it in the federal system are African-American.
The House I Live In argues from multiple vantage points why our drug-policy system is not only unjust, but absurd. (According to a text interstitial, the War on Drugs “has cost over $1 trillion and resulted in more than 45 million arrests. During that time, illegal drug use has remained unchanged.”) The most powerful reasoning against criminalization is that it creates a never-ending cycle: Impoverished users—or simply the impoverished—sell to make ends meet. Their kids mimic their lifestyle, or grow up with parents in jail. The kids end up in jail. The inmates receive punishment instead of rehabilitation, and when they get out, they forever have to check “yes” to the “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” question on employment applications, so they turn back to dealing or using. And on and on.
David Simon, onetime Baltimore Sun crime reporter and creator of The Wire, offers plenty of insight here, all against drug criminalization for the nonviolent. Toward the end of the film, other commentators go so far as to compare our system to Nazism, and Simon doesn’t disagree. “Kill the poor, that’s what the drug war’s about to become,” he says. “[It’s] a Holocaust in slow motion.”