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Film shows cost of America’s drug war in dollars and lives

Kendra Graves
Film shows cost of America’s drug war in dollars and lives

Author: Derek HallquistThis shot from “The House I Live In” depicts inmates in a correctional facility. The film chronicles the failed war on drugs and its cost to the United States both in terms of dollars and lives.

When filmmaker Eugene Jarecki decided to delve into the murky waters of America’s drug war in 2008, he started close to home.

He interviewed Nanny Jenner, a black woman his family had employed as a housekeeper for most of Jarecki’s young life. While it’s clear that Jarecki has a deep appreciation for how Jenner helped to raise him, he also acknowledges that Jenner’s need to work for his family ultimately led to the disintegration of her own.

Sadness stretches across Jenner’s face as she reflects on how her decision to move to New York with Jarecki’s family — a move made to earn more money to support her children — ultimately drove her son James to begin using drugs; he died in the late ‘80s after contracting AIDS following years spent injecting heroin.

Jenner’s story is just one of several searing accounts in Jarecki’s film, “The House I Live,” a Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner that takes both a critical and compassionate look at how the war on drugs has impacted everyday Americans.

Through brutally honest and heartfelt portraits of people involved in and impacted by the drug war, Jarecki makes a strong case that the war on drugs has never really been about drugs, but is, in fact, a war on all Americans, a capitalist chess game benefiting a small group of the powerful elite.

Expert interviews from the likes of “The New Jim Crow” author Michelle Alexander; David Simon, author, journalist and creator of the critically acclaimed HBO series “The Wire,” and Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree offer important context for why and how America’s drug war has been sustained. But it’s the personal narratives by convicted drug dealers, former drug abusers and their loved ones, and law enforcement and criminal justice officials that give the film its color, painting a more vivid picture of how socio-economic conditions push people to seek drugs as a form of refuge or revenue.

As Anthony Johnson’s girlfriend, Alicia Alcindor, sits stoically in a New York City apartment, their infant daughter sleeping soundly on her chest, tears suddenly spring from her eyes as she realizes that it could be years — decades even — before she and her daughter see Johnson again. Johnson is in jail pending trial on drug possession charges after being arrested in Vermont allegedly brokering a drug deal, and sees clearly the pattern that’s emerging: He grew up without his father, who spent years imprisoned on drug charges, and the chances that his younger daughter will do the same are extremely high.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s father, Dennis Whidbee, a convicted drug dealer and former drug abuser who now lives in Florida, is driven to tears as he comes to terms with the fact that his son has followed in his footsteps. Whidbee recalls the sense of desperation he felt when he discovered he would be a father. How would he provide for his sons? Drug dealing was the easy answer, but the pressure and risks of a life spent serving on corners eventually drove Whidbee to start using himself.

Since its inception, America’s drug war has proven to be a neverending battle that has cost the country millions — in both dollars and lives. Since President Richard Nixon set off the war on drugs more than 30 years ago by declaring drugs America’s “public enemy number one,” the United States has spent at least $1 trillion on the drug war, with more than 45 million Americans imprisoned for drug-related crimes. And yet, the rate of drug abuse and drug sales has yet to decrease.

“The House I Live In” pinpoints several reasons why the war on drugs has failed: Demand for drugs remains high because people still look to substances to numb the pain of living in poverty and oppression; communities of color have for centuries been disenfranchised from economic opportunities and driven to “underground economies” like drug dealing just to survive; and the war on drugs is simply big business — with everyone from local police departments and elected officials to owners of privatized, for-profit prisons making money from the arrest and imprisonment of those caught using or dealing drugs.  

As the film points out, every war starts with propaganda, and the war on drugs has been no different. Decades-old clips from PSAs and sound bites of politicians promising to scrub away the scourge of drugs show America’s long history of shaping citizens’ perceptions about who uses and sells drugs.

Particularly elucidating is Jarecki’s interview with investigative reporter Charles Bowden, who pointed out that historically, America’s drug laws materialized out of a need to alleviate fear among whites that people of color had too much access to economic opportunities like jobs and housing. Drug policy became a form of racial control, a way to target immigrant groups that were threatening the white economy and criminalize their behavior. Those arrested and imprisoned as a result of discriminatory drug laws are, as one expert put it, “paying for our fear, not for their crimes.”

Unfortunately, it’s not just everyday Americans who have come to believe the hype about people of color being the primary culprits in the drug war. Jarecki also reveals the ways racial myths and stereotypes often lead law enforcement and criminal justice officials to arrest, detain and imprison people of color — particularly black people — at higher rates than whites, who abuse drugs at higher rates than people of color: While a mere 13% of all crack users are black, 90% of defendants in criminal cases involving crack are black.

What’s worse, the propaganda of prejudice and discrimination at the root of the drug war has manifested in bad policing and unjust court proceedings that have created an irreparable rift between law enforcement and criminal justice officials and the communities they are sworn to protect and serve. In the film, a Providence, R.I. police officer laughs as his partner proposes that poor women of color be sterilized so they don’t give birth to children that cops will eventually end up arresting. On the other side of the country, the sheriff of a small town miles from the Mexican border shrugs as he admits that in his hunt for drug traffickers, he profiles — probably unfairly — the people driving to and from Mexico, and goes so far as to suggest that all law enforcement officials do the same. Add to these attitudes the fact that drug arrests are often highly incentivized in many police departments, and it becomes clear why many law enforcement officials pursue drug crimes more aggressively than they do other crime and public safety issues.   

Especially interesting is the film’s look at how the drug war has fueled the race to build and fill more privatized, for-profit prisons throughout America, and more specifically, the way mandatory minimum sentencing has made it easy to incarcerate millions of men and women for years on end, often the majority of their lives. Maurice Haltiwanger, whose story is highlighted in the documentary, is a prime example.

Arrested for drug possession, Haltiwanger goes before Judge Mark Bennett to receive his sentence. Though Bennett is known for delivering lighter sentences, his hands are tied when it comes to Haltiwanger’s case — even though Haltiwanger has taken a plea bargain, mandatory minimum sentencing laws state that he still must serve a minimum of 20 years in prison.

Michelle Alexander reveals that there are now more Black people imprisoned in American correctional facilities than there were Africans enslaved in the 1800s, a clear indication that the war on drugs is increasing the bottom line for those with a financial stake in the criminal justice system. And yet, the increase in imprisonment has only led to more poverty and crime, as those released from prison typically find themselves homeless, jobless and lacking the education, skills or support system to access resources or opportunities.

The “House I Live In” doesn’t go so far as to offer viable solutions to ending the drug war, decreasing the prison population, or restoring the lives and communities destroyed by the war on drugs. It does, however, make a compelling case that a pointless and ineffective campaign has fattened the pockets of a few, but has ultimately led America into a moral bankruptcy from which it won’t easily rebound.

Ogletree: We must find another way

Harvard Law School professor and Civil Rights attorney Charles Ogletree, who’s featured in “The House I Live In,” has been a steady and staunch opponent of the war on drugs for more than 20 years. Here, he talks with the Banner about why the drug war has failed, why he continues to advocate for drug law reform, and how the film can help transform how we think about and deal with drugs in America.

When did the war on drugs first appear on your radar, and why have you strongly opposed drug war policy?
It really hit me in the ‘80s when I left Harvard Law School and went to Washington, D.C., to work as a public defender. There we had a lot of individuals who were charged with drug offenses, and there were mandatory minimums, there were people being punished for things that, to me, were incredibly unreasonable and unjust. Congress, which was led by Republicans and President Ronald Reagan was in the office, started pushing for more penalties — they wanted to punish crack cocaine 100 times more severely as an offense than powder cocaine, and that meant they were punishing blacks who were using crack cocaine as opposed to whites, the majority of whom used powder cocaine. They were punishing a race, not just a crime. And it struck me in a big way when I helped [write] a report, “The Sentencing Project”; what we publicized was that in the year 1989, there were, for the first time in the history of America, 1 million people in prison. [By 2000], a little more than a decade [later], the prison population had doubled. That to me became the stark evidence of the challenge we had to face. It was those experiences as a lawyer, as a public defender, as a law professor, as a community activist, as a Civil Rights lawyer that made me realize that what we were doing was wrongheaded and we had to find another way to do it.

Now that President Obama has been re-elected, what role do you see his administration playing in ending the war on drugs?
[The Obama Administration] understands it’s a problem, and they understand that the approaches and tactics used 20 years ago, five years ago just haven’t worked — they’ve been abysmal failures. And as a result of that, they are the ones that convinced Congress to reduce the penalty for the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1. That’s a major change in the right direction. I’m hoping that with the restraints removed as far as politics, the president can do some positive things. And I suspect if they haven’t seen it, that the drug czar and the president and the attorney general will watch “The House I Live In” as a reminder of how things got out of hand, out of control, and that the goal now is to try to find a way to resolve it.