In the past decade, Eugene Jarecki has directed documentaries on Henry Kissinger (The Trials of Henry Kissinger), Ronald Reagan (Reagan) and the military-industrial complex (Why We Fight). At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, he premiered his latest film, The House I Live In, an in-depth examination of the nation’s war on drugs. Jarecki traces the roots of the war to Richard Nixon’s famous declaration in 1971, and then illustrates how the battle has become an ineffective enterprise and an unexamined method of suppressing the poor. Jarecki sat down with Outside to discuss the film, which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Documentaries.
Why did you want to make this film?
There are people I knew, in particular African-Americans, who were suffering from what seemed a surprising kind of aftershock of the Civil Rights movement. There was one family I was particularly close to, the matriarch was Nannie Jeter. They, and I, all thought we were all on a post-Civil Rights path where we would kind of share in the same American promise. Instead, as I met privilege and possibilities, they met a lot of struggle. Over time this has stayed with me a lot. It’s been a theme in my life: What happened to the Jeter family? When I asked Nannie what she thought went wrong, she said she thought it was drugs, that the primary enemy that had attacked her loved ones was drugs. And then of course I wondered why had that happened to them and not my family, and why did it seem to be happening to a lot of African-American families? That led me to ask further questions of experts in the field of addiction, and also society and law. What’s going on here? They all looked at me like the inquiry about drugs was only half the story. Drugs were a problem for people, but as David Simon says in the film, whatever drugs hadn’t destroyed, the war against them has.
How hard was it to find critics of the war on drugs?
As I started to go around the country, I couldn’t find anyone who would defend this war. It has cost over a trillion dollars, there have been over 44 million arrests. It has made us the world’s largest jailer—2.3 million people in prison. That’s more in absolute numbers than any country in the world, including totalitarian countries. We incarcerate a far higher percentage of our own people—not just in absolute but in relative numbers—than any other country, including China. China has about 2.3 million people in jail but they have a population of about 1.5 billion people. We have 2.3 million of just 280 million, so about 1 percent of our population is in jail. This is China, which Americans sort of single out as the country of disregard for human dignity. So that’s startling. You look at all those figures, you can’t get anyone in their right mind to defend a system that has failed in every way to reduce demand, reduce supply. More Americans use drugs than before, so it’s failing on every level and costing a fortune.
You bring up the fact that Nixon initially approached the war on drugs by spending lots of money on treatment, not law enforcement.
Despite his war-like rhetoric, behind the scenes he was spending two-thirds of his money on treatment, not on law enforcement. So he knew, and yet he was willing to play the political game of using tough-on-crime rhetoric to get elected. His success in doing that formed a mold that politicians have followed ever since.
At one point you ask what originally made drugs such a perceived danger, and you trace it back to the illegalization of opium as a way to criminalize the Chinese in the 1800s.
I learned that from [historian] Richard Miller, who was in the film. What we did with the Chinese with opium was so very similar to what we did with crack cocaine. Because in America in the 1860s—the analogy is amazing—the number one user of opium was a middle-aged white woman. In this country, the number one user of crack is a white person. And yet the white woman didn’t go to jail and the white people don’t go to jail today. Instead we put the Chinese away, and we put the Chinese away in a very similar way to the way we put black Americans away. The Chinese got put away because we made one way of taking opium illegal. In the contemporary context, we did the same thing with crack. Crack is a form of cocaine and is actually the same chemically as cocaine—you’re just taking it in a different way because it’s cooked with baking soda and water. They made opium illegal but not all opium. They only made smoking opium illegal because that was what’s called the delivery mechanism that the Chinese used. So both with crack and opium, the laws that have been passed were laws passed against a particular delivery mechanism. The drug itself is of varying legality and illegality determined quite arbitrarily by those in power, and I find that parallel very haunting.
You make the point that many of the drug users and dealers, who tend to get the blame in the war on drugs, are actually acting rationally within a system that is irrational.
How many American wars can we describe that really are rational? And the drug war is simply our longest war, which represents our greatest and longest departure from reason. To have thought you could declare war on a chemical or series of chemicals and not know implicitly that you’re really declaring war on the users of those chemicals, now you have war against a large section of your own people.
Do you think “war on drugs” should be banned as a slogan?
The Obama administration has abandoned it. The director of National Drug Control Policy, who’s also known as the drug czar, doesn’t call himself a drug czar and doesn’t call it a war on drugs. That’s commendable, but it’s kind of window dressing if the policies stay the same. And the Obama administration has not paired its abandonment of the term war on drugs with meaningful policy reform.
You shot this film in more than 20 states. Is that the most legwork you’ve put into producing a movie?
In terms of geography, I’ve never traveled as far and wide. I didn’t wanna leave any stone unturned. I didn’t want someone to watch the movie and say, you know, that’s true on the east coast, but it’s really different down here in Oklahoma. Or that’s true in Oklahoma, but in California we do things really differently. So I wanted to make sure that I had enough places that if you heard a cop in Providence share his reservation about the war on drugs, you could go down to New Mexico and find a cop there saying the same thing, and in Seattle. What you find is a tremendous amount of overlap. You get a judge in Sioux City, Iowa, saying precisely the same things that a perp sitting in a Vermont jail told me. They agree about the unfairness of the law. The judge feels bad that he’s giving a sentence that he doesn’t agree with because his hands are tied by what are called mandatory minimum sentences, and the perp is sitting there about to spend a tremendous amount of his life behind bars because of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
What are some of the reactions you’ve had to the film so far?
I think people are shocked. People feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the human cost that’s involved, and they wonder what they can do about it. The next time a politician comes around and says vote for me because I’m gonna put away all the bad guys, they’re gonna be able to say that person is simply pandering to me for my vote.