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New PBS documentary probes war on drugs in ‘The House I Live In’

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In 1971, President Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs and argued that drug abuse was “public enemy number one” in the United States.

But instead of framing drugs as a matter of public health, the government placed them in the realm of law enforcement. Four decades later, this country has arrested 45 million people and spent more than $1 trillion in the name of fighting drugs. It now locks up more people than anywhere else in the world — 2.3 million — all while the rate of illegal drug use has remained unchanged.

The failure of America’s drug war is the subject of a new documentary by Eugene Jarecki, “The House I Live In,” named after the song by Paul Robeson. The film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and premieres next week on PBS, explores the human toll the War on Drugs has taken on the nation, particularly in black America.

“This modern era of black people being so overrepresented in who gets arrested, who gets charged with crimes, who gets sentenced and the severity of those sentences, is the critical feature of our system of mass incarceration,” Jarecki says. “It’s just the latest chapter of America using drug laws as a thinly veiled means of social and racial control.”

Jarecki’s interest in the Drug War stems from personal experience. Days after he was born, Jarecki’s affluent, Jewish parents hired an African American migrant from the South named Nannie Jetter to look after him. When the family decided to move from Connecticut to New York a few years later, they offered to double Jetter’s salary if she followed them. She agreed, leaving her own children behind in order to care for Jarecki.  

But this was “the wrong thing to do,” Jetter says in the film. In her absence, Jetter’s youngest son, James, started experimenting with drugs, and eventually died of AIDS. Seeing his own connection to James’ addiction, Jarecki set out to understand the deeper social and economic forces at play in America’s relationship to illegal substances.

The film is filled with personal stories similar to James’, showing the intersection of poverty and drugs, and the ripple effect it has on families and the broader community.

A man loses his job, turns to low-level drug dealing to pay his bills and after his third offense gets a life sentence behind bars. A man is sent away to prison and is unable to raise his son; his son is sent away to prison and is unable to raise his son; his son is sent away to prison and is unable to raise his son.

“It’s a system that basically chews people up and spits them back out again with shattered lives, destroyed families, destroyed communities,” Jarecki says.

In addition to these personal stories, Jarecki’s film features law enforcement officials, judges and experts such as David Simon, creator of the hit television show “The Wire,” Harvard professors Charles Ogletree and William Julius Wilson and Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” who explain the history of the War on Drugs, and how it came to target African Americans.

As historian Richard Miller points out, the link between drug policy and race reaches back hundreds of years.

During the 19th century, many of today’s illicit drugs — such as cocaine, heroin and opium — were legal, and frequently used by upper-class whites. California was the first state to criminalize smoking opium, not coincidentally, around the same time that the drug was being used by upwardly mobile Chinese immigrants on the West coast.

Similarly, hemp — which was once an agricultural staple in the United States — was banned in the 1930s as it became associated with Mexican immigrants and known by its Spanish name, marijuana, and cocaine was outlawed as African Americans migrated to Northern cities.

“These laws set up a very dangerous precedent of racial control,” Miller says in the film, and “target immigrant groups seen as threatening to the economic order.”

Decades later, these drug laws were taken to another level. “When Nixon launched the Drug War in 1971, that ad hoc, improvised history of drug laws with racial implications was suddenly codified into a federal and state-by-state program on a national scale,” Jarecki says. “Once a little law here or a little law there being implemented in improvised ways, became systematized.”

In one of his previous works, the 2005 documentary, “Why We Fight,” Jarecki investigated the country’s military-industrial complex — and the filmmaker says that it bears striking resemblance to the system of mass incarceration produced by the Drug War.

“They’re just two very good examples of our willingness to put profit before people and principle,” he says. “For wars that profit a specific subset of the population, we trade the very lives of our own young men and women and a lot of men, women and children overseas. And the prison industrial system is the domestic sister of the military industrial complex, in the sense that here at home, we’re trading human lives for economic profit.”

While Jarecki finds some hope that the Drug War may be crumbling after Colorado and Washington’s recent vote to legalize marijuana, he still says there’s a long way to go.

“We’ve been at this for four decades,” he says. “And what do we have to show for it? A record of total failure: Drugs are cheaper, purer and more in demand and more in use today than ever before.”


“The House I Live In” premieres on WGBH on Monday, April 8 at 10 p.m.