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Eugene Jarecki on the war on drugs

The filmmaker behind the eye-opening new documentary speaks about the failings of the longest war in US history

Eye-opening documentary The House I Live In lays bare the devastation that America’s decades-long War on Drugs has caused, through interviews with those caught in the crossfire – from dealers and users, to grieving families and inmates, to senators, judges, and law enforcement across the country. Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki (Freakonomics, Why We Fight) shared his thoughts on the catastrophic failure of the longest war in America’s history.

Dazed Digital: What was the most revealing discovery about America’s War on Drugs?
Eugene Jarecki:
The most surprising thing I found while making the film was how unified everyone seemed to be in seeing the drug war as a terrible failure. Especially the people I talked to who worked in corrections facilities. They’re law-and-order types who are deeply committed to their jobs, but so many of them admitted that simple incarceration wasn’t the ideal way to deal with this problem. Many are heartbroken about the ways in which “tough on crime” tactics savage the lives of those on the inside and outside. 

DD: Do you think that speaks to an overall change in people’s attitude toward the drug war?
Eugene Jarecki: I think it speaks to the shifting of the Zeitgeist about this issue. This film dovetails nicely with a growing movement that realizes the drug war has not only demonstrated itself to be a moral and practical failure, but also ultimately a tremendous financial disaster in a country that can’t afford to take another blow to its economy. The drug war has very few defenders left. Hardly anyone tells me that my film got it wrong. The drug war has deeply damaged communities in this country – particularly poor and minority communities – and continues to, by filling our prisons in a way that humiliates the US as the world’s leading jailer.

DD: Is the fact that this issue seems to affect poor and minority communities disproportionately the reason more isn’t being done to change policies more rapidly?
Eugene Jarecki: Well, Richard Prior once said brilliantly. It’s only an “epidemic” when it starts to affect white people. This issue has been eviscerating communities of colour for decades, but I can tell you that if you’re poor in the US – white or not – effectively you’re in the crosshairs of the same set of predatory forces that have been preying on minorities for years. The racial aspects of the drug war have given way to the voracious industrial prison system’s need for a constant and steady flow of human bodies. It’s yet another example of America run amok by essentially trading human life for profit, brazenly expressed by our system of industrialized mass incarceration.

DD: What’s the most important thing you want people to take away from this film?
Eugene Jarecki: Victor Hugo had a great line. He said, “More powerful than the tread of a mighty army is an idea whose time has come.” I think that’s what’s happening with the drug war. The War on Drugs must end.  It’s a terrible idea – a horrible piece of public policy that should be ended as quickly as we stopped dragging women by the hair. The system needs to reform itself and follow the lead of other dignified Western democracies like Portugal, that have begun to rethink this issue and how problems like addiction work. I hope when audiences hear the chorus of voices clamouring for reform in this film, they’ll be motivated to seek change. 

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Text by Kristopher Monroe