Roving thoughts and provocations

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The War We Aren’t Debating

Marco Ugarte/AP
A soldier guarding a marijuana plantation discovered during military operations in northern Mexico, January 30, 2012

It’s a social policy that, many experts agree, has failed miserably since it was introduced more than forty years ago, tearing apart families and communities across the United States, consuming tens of thousands of lives abroad, and squandering huge sums of money. Yet hardly any national politician is willing to challenge it, and it’s been completely ignored during the 2012 presidential campaign.

I’m speaking of the war on drugs. Since 1971, when Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one” and stated his intention of waging a “new, all-out offensive” against it, the government has spent an estimated trillion dollars on the war. Much of that money has gone to street-level drug arrests, undercover raids, intelligence taskforces, highway patrols, and—most costly of all—prison beds. Of the 2.3 million people in prison in the United States today, nearly half a million are there for drug offenses, many of them of the low-level, nonviolent variety. In 2010, 1.64 million people were arrested for drug violations—80 percent of them for possession.

In Latin America, the war on drugs has sown misery across a vast swath of territory stretching from the coca fields of Peru to Mexico’s border with the United States. Billions have been spent on crop eradication, commando units, military training, unmanned surveillance drones, and helicopters. The result has been endless bloodshed, widespread corruption, and political instability. In Mexico alone, an estimated 50,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in the nearly six years since Mexican President Felipe Calderón (encouraged by Washington) declared war on his nation’s drug cartels. One result of the crackdown has been to push traffickers into Central America, where they now terrorize Guatemalans and Hondurans. All the while, drugs continue to flow unabated into the United States. In 1981, a pure gram of cocaine cost $669 (adjusted for inflation); today, it goes for $177.

As for consumption, cocaine use has decreased considerably since its peak in the mid-1980s, and methamphetamine use has also subsided after a destructive surge in the 2000s. But the abuse of prescription drugs, especially of opioid painkillers, has grown to what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls “epidemic” levels, and the number of accidental overdose deaths from such substances has soared. This spurt underscores that the real source of our drug problem lies not in Mexico or Colombia but inside our own borders, and that arresting and locking up users is a singularly ineffective way of addressing it.

On taking office four years ago, President Obama consciously retired the war-on-drugs rhetoric, and at every opportunity Gil Kerlikowske, his director of national drug control policy, describes drug abuse as a public-health problem. Nonetheless, the administration has largely continued the policy of its predecessors, devoting around 60 percent of the federal drug budget (now about $25 billion a year) to law enforcement, interdiction, and fighting drug cartels abroad and the remainder to treatment and prevention. In two areas, the administration has shown special zeal: prosecuting medical marijuana providers and extending the drug war to a host of new countries, including not only Honduras and Guatemala but also Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya. The US is now trying to fight drug abuse in America by sending counternarcotics teams to Accra and Lagos.

Exposing the madness of the US drug war is the aim of The House I Live In, a new documentary written and directed by Eugene Jarecki. Like Jarecki’s previous film Why We Fight, a hard-hitting critique of the military-industrial complex, The House I Live In offers a sharp indictment of its subject, in part through frank interviews with several individuals who—once key props in the system—have turned decisively against it. One is Mark Bennett, a federal judge who describes his frustration at having sentenced hundreds of people to prison for fifteen years or more under the nation’s harsh mandatory-minimum laws. Another is a Kentucky prison guard who looks like he could have been Rod Steiger’s sidekick in “In the Heat of the Night” but who bemoans that his prison is largely filled with small-time drug offenders who have no business being there.

The House I Live In is especially effective at capturing the damage the drug war has inflicted on black America. Many of those given long prison sentences are African-American, male, and poor, and the film shows the wrenching effects their incarceration has had on their families and communities. In the film, David Simon, creator of The Wire, ably explains how the lack of economic opportunities in the inner city has pushed many young blacks into drug-dealing. Michelle Alexander, the legal scholar and author of the best-selling The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, describes how the war on drugs has replicated the effects of the Jim Crow laws in the South, subjecting black men to what amounts to discriminatory treatment in the criminal justice system.

Jarecki also makes clear how the drug war has given rise to interest groups vested in its continuation. These include police officers who rack up many hours of overtime, prison guards who can count on good salaries and benefits, and private prison operators who need to keep their beds filled. For the many Americans who, lulled by the lack of debate about drug war policy in Washington, have not been paying attention to it, such revelations will no doubt prove eye-opening.

The question is, how many of them will actually see the film? Few documentaries manage to gain a wide viewership, and The House I Live In has several shortcomings that, I fear, will limit its audience. At an hour and forty-eight minutes, it feels quite long. It features an extensive cast of characters who, flitting in and out of the film, are hard to keep straight. Though the film forcefully shows the noxious effects of the drug war, it barely takes note of the toxic effects of the drugs themselves. Drugs are seen exclusively as an issue that politicians exploit to show their toughness on crime. Even the crack epidemic is dismissed as a crisis that has been manufactured to justify a crackdown on African-Americans. But that epidemic was real and did incalculable damage to the black community.

Nor is the film helped by its forced effort to liken Washington’s drug policy to Nazi Germany. After an extended look at the disproportionate impact on black America, The House I Live In suddenly pivots to show that blacks have not in fact been its only victims. As a result of the recent surge in methamphetamine abuse, many whites have gotten caught up in the criminal justice system for low-level drug-related offenses. With the Jim Crow analysis inapplicable here, the film turns to Richard Miller, a historian who compares the drug war to, of all things, the Holocaust. Images of people being arrested on America’s streets are intercut with photos of Jews being forced into ghettoes and otherwise persecuted. By engaging in such outlandish hyperbole, The House I Live In seems intent on marginalizing itself.

But the film’s most serious shortcoming is its failure to consider the alternatives to current policy. Among Latin American governments, for example, widespread disillusionment with the drug war has fed growing support for drug legalization, an approach seriously raised at this year’s hemispheric summit meeting in Cartagena. President Obama has predictably demurred: wary of opening up a new avenue of attack for the Republican Party, the administration seems to feel the need to strike a tough law-and-order stance on drugs during this election year. Politics aside, the recent surge in prescription drug abuse shows the terrible human toll that can result when addictive substances are made more widely available.

A more effective—and politically feasible—approach would be to redirect government resources from imprisonment and interdiction to treatment and prevention. Rehab centers, methadone clinics, and after-school programs have been shown to be much sounder, and cost-effective, investments than border agents, narcotics squads, and long prison terms. In an era of shrinking budgets, such money-saving approaches may be the most persuasive. In states like California and New York, the surge in spending on correctional facilities, driven in part by the ever-growing population of non-violent drug offenders, has diverted funds from areas like higher education—a trade-off that seems increasingly indefensible.

Despite the absence of discussion of the issue in Washington, the political climate may be changing: polls show growing support for legalizing marijuana, and on election day Colorado, Oregon, and Washington state will offer ballot initiatives to legalize and regulate the possession of small amounts of pot. Even more striking, Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, in a speech in June, called the drug war “a failure.” Warehousing a prisoner for a year in his state costs $49,000, he said, compared to $24,000 for inpatient treatment. Noting that people who become addicted to drugs are “sick” and “need treatment,” Christie advocated making residential treatment mandatory for all first-time, non-violent drug offenders.

Actually, many courts dealing with drug offenses are already doing this. And making treatment mandatory for all drug offenders would be wasteful, since not all are addicts. But the governor’s recognition that many of those who abuse drugs need help, and that treatment is an effective way of providing it, represents a major step forward. As prisons and courts continue to devour government revenue, perhaps other politicians will take notice.


The House I Live In is playing in theaters across the US.

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