Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Movie Review: The House I Live In

The House I Live In
Directed by: Eugene Jarecki.
Written by: Eugene Jarecki & Christopher St John.

The War on Drugs is hugely expensive and not very effective. Most people have known this for years now. Eugene Jarecki’s excellent documentary The House I Live In goes back and looks at the history of American drug laws, and the War on Drugs, to figure out why it hasn’t really worked in practice. The answers he comes up with shocked and saddened me.

The case The House I Live in makes is that the War on Drugs is basically racist. The earliest drug laws in America were to criminalize opium in California. Why? Because California had a lot of Chinese immigrants, largely unpopular among the white citizens, and this was a way to arrest them. The same thing happened later with marijuana laws that targeted Latinos. And the same thing is going on right now with African Americans. Why is it that although African Americans make up just 13% of America, and studies show that they make up about the same percentage of drugs users, that 90% of the people arrested and jailed on drug charges are black? And why, until recently, did people get the same sentence for possessing 5 grams of crack that they got for possessing 500 grams of cocaine, when there is no real difference between the two of them? The answers are simple – more young black men sell crack than cocaine, and as street level dealers, they are easy targets for the police – who want to show they are making arrests, even though the ones interviewed in this movie admit they aren’t really making a difference. And also, prisons are big business. They are an increasing number of for profit prisons in America, and even the ones that aren’t, still need to buy a lot of stuff from private companies. Locking up drug users doesn’t really help them, but it ensures a continual profit for business, and don’t we all want that? And more prisons mean more jobs, and don’t we need those as well?

Politicians don’t want to be seen as “soft on crime” – something that they will be hit with during every election, so as such, they pass laws like “mandatory minimums” so “bleeding heart” judges won’t let people go with nothing but a slap on the wrist. They have no choice but to sentence people to long prison terms, even if it won’t actually help curb drug abuse.

What Jarecki’s point really boils down to however is this – drugs are mainly a result of poverty. For many growing up in the slums, they see little opportunity to become successful, and selling drugs seems to be the quickest, easiest way of making money. For years, this was mainly young, African American males being arrested, but this has started to turn around in recent years – as there are many more unemployed, disenfranchised white men out there – and they have started to sell crystal meth. Throwing these people in jails doesn’t solve the main issues however – that with more and more people unemployed, or struggling to make ends meet, there are going to be more and more people who turn to drugs.

Now, I am advocating making drugs legal? Not really, although drug laws do certainly seem to serve only to drive the prices of drugs up, which in turn increases the amount of crime drug users commit in order to satisfy their addictions. But I do think that more emphasis needs to be on rehabilitation than punishment – getting people clean, instead of locking them in jail for decades. And more effort needs to be made to give the disenfranchised of every race more of an opportunity to make something of their lives, so that they do not turn to drugs in the first place. You want to get people off drugs, don’t give them a reason to go drugs in the first place. Some will undoubtedly still use drugs – it’s a fact we must learn to live with – but something needs to be done to stop the number of people going to jail for non-violent drug offenses – especially since it does not appear that justice is meted out equally among all users.

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