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Eugene Jarecki, Sundance Grand Jury Winner, On His Drug War Documentary 'The House I Live In'


First Posted: 01/30/2012 11:29 am EST Updated: 01/30/2012 11:29 am EST

In 2005, Eugene Jarecki's documentary "Why We Fight" won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for its incisive deconstruction of the military-industrial complex. At this year's festival, he won the award again with a follow-up of sorts, titled "The House I Live In," which examines the unimaginable damage wrought by America's prison-industrial system and the so-called War on Drugs.

Jarecki begins with a personal story. Troubled by the contrast between his own middle-class Jewish family's rising fortunes and the tragedies suffered by the family of their housekeeper, Nannie Jeter, Jarecki begins to search for answers. Nannie blames drugs, but it's not long before Jarecki identifies a more sinister culprit: the drug war. The cycle goes something like this: politicians looking to score easy points campaign on a "tough on crime" platform; public dollars that might otherwise be spent on something useful instead get diverted to law-enforcement campaigns against poor, mostly black drug dealers, most of whom are addicts; judges who might otherwise dismiss such cases or dole out minimal sentences have their hands tied by the aforementioned politicians, who push "mandatory sentencing" as a way to score more easy points; families are broken up as young people are sent to prison for 5, 10, 20 years or more for non-violent, low-level crimes; etc., etc., etc.

Over the course of two hours, Jarecki paints an ever-more-infuriating portrait of a system whose brutality and injustice is a national disgrace, even if most of us don't even realize it's happening. He talks to cops, corrections officers, judges and doctors, but also prisoners, dealers and David Simon, the former journalist who created the HBO series "The Wire" and has some of the best lines in the film. (He calls the drug war "a holocaust in slow motion" and complains that, by rewarding cops who make hundreds of low-level street busts a month instead of those who methodically investigate murders and thefts, we have created police departments "where nobody can solve a fucking crime.") None of the people he spoke to would defend the current system.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has declined to use the phrase "War on Drugs," even as it leaves virtually all of its machinery in place. I sat down with Jarecki in Park City for a half hour, and barely had enough time to scratch the surface of this supremely idiotic, utterly ineffective waste of resources and human potential.

At the Q&A after the premiere screening, I noticed that two of your subjects seemed to disagree over the health risks of drug use. What do you make of those disagreements among people who generally agree that the drug war is misguided?

As with so many issues in American life, where there is agreement is where it matters and where there is disagreement is where reasonable people should engage in a deep and ongoing dialogue. And if you were to address what they all agree on, you could massively repair this system. The fact that a judge shares the view of a drug dealer, shares the view of a doctor, shares the view of a scientist, shares the view of a corrections officer and the cops as well -- when you hear the same thing from that wide a panoply of involved parties, you have to think twice.

Are the people in the film representative of others who work in their fields?

They were representative. Look, the film was shot in 25 states. After a while, I felt like I was making a travelogue of the American drug war. But I wanted to get out there far and wide so that no one could say, "Oh, that's just the perspective from a very tough state of Oklahoma, or that's just the perspective of a warm-and-fuzzy state like Vermont." I wanted everything in between. Everywhere you go, there is complexity. It's not simply that drugs are irrelevant, nor is it the case that drugs are the source of all evil.

I'm not a drug user myself, but I have my own addictions. Mine is food. I used to ask prisoners, "You gave up crack -- can you help me stop eating so much?" And they would give me advice on kicking the habit. So I look at addiction as a natural part of the human condition that plays to our insecurities, to our desire for adventure, to our fears. And the notion that we would transmogrify it into a crime, and particularly into a crime that is punished more severely than violent crimes, is grotesque. It's so stupid. Everyone agrees on that. To be honest with you, I can barely find anyone who will defend the system as it is.

So why do we still have this system?

It's the same reason we start losing wars. It's because we have systems in place that were built and became deeply ensconced before the wisdom about the grotesque failure of the operation was clear. So now, even if Judge Bennett wanted to give an offender a sentence of less than 20 years, he can't. And even if we wanted to do x ,y, and z, we can't. By "can't," we mean it is a Herculean task. If we went back to the imprisonment rate we had in the early 70s, something like four out of five people employed in the prison industry would lose their jobs. That's what you're up against. That's what makes it hard, even though we know better.

It seems that one politically motivated decision by President Richard Nixon, who thought the War on Drugs would help him get reelected, has become this supertanker that's virtually impossible to turn around.

That's exactly what happened. The drug war is the longest war in American history -- 40 years now. And the systems that it produces are formidable but also reversible. All things are reversible. We don't make buggy whips anymore. We need to shift our priorities away from a prison-industrial national business model, which is by nature cannibalistic to society. It's not adding a product that the rest of the world wants and buys. But remember when Obama flirted with the notion of a million green jobs? I'm not sure where that went, but imagine if all this talent and intellect and energy were invested in a product we could sell, into the green future that we could be such a principle part of and are instead lagging behind on.

If America were your friend, and you saw the country addicted to a form of short-term gratification behavior, you'd do what you could to help this person get weaned off this thing. I've talked about America as the fat Elvis. He came on the scene and was cool looking with all this great music, and then all that came with power took its toll and before long he's a drunk, addicted, non-self-conscious character. Anyone who loved him would say, "Is this what you want to be?"

So we're addicted to the drug war? That's ironic.

Yeah, we are. These communities are absolutely reliant on a form of business that cannibalizes human beings. They are, whether they realize it or not, addicted to it, because getting them off it would he as difficult as going cold turkey on some other form of tragic addiction.

You traveled all over the country, but did you intentionally leave out the international picture? Because that is pretty infuriating in itself.

You can't make a film long enough to properly prosecute the American condition and also prosecute the international conditions of the drug war, and yet that is a shortcoming of the film. Because there is no way to keep them separate. We are the world's largest drug customer.

Senator John McCain recites a staggering statistic in the film.

Yeah, he says that Americans spend $10 to 16 billion a year on illegal drugs. That creates a demand that is fueling conflict and violence in other countries, but it wouldn't be doing so without the illegality. So the very fabric of our drug war is part of what's creating unrest elsewhere. It's not the only thing. You always have to give countries credit for being just as nefarious as anybody else, and there is plenty of nefarious deep-seated corruption inside of Mexico or Afghanistan, but we are a force multiplier, as the military would say, to that corruption. We make it worse. It is our demand, and the illegality of our demand, that keeps the price tag high and fuels a tremendous cut-throat scramble for the available resources of this illegal trade. And all that, of course, promotes violence. We learned that in Prohibition. We know that, so why do we keep doing it? Do we not care what it's doing to those countries? Are we so focused on the short-term profit that the drug war is giving us that we turn a blind eye to the unbelievable wreckage that it's creating in other countries?

The amazing thing your film points out, which I didn't realize, is that most Americans don't even seem to know that the War on Drugs is still going on.

And you can't blame Americans. Well, you can and you can't. We all need to be far more aware. There are things I need to be far more aware about. But I feel like it's unfair to say to Americans, "You need to know all this," because most people are very hard-working, they already work several jobs that don't really pay what it costs to get by, they've got mortgages to pay and forms to fill out -- so that asking people to engage in serious social change is like one big add-on. "How do I get my head around that on a Friday night? I want an escape, I want to watch ‘American Idol,' I want to watch ‘Dancing With the Stars,' and then Eugene's going to come along and say, ‘Oh it's worse than you even think'?"

But I dare say we will lose this country while we sleep on that job. And so however difficult it may be, it's actually a lot easier than what's to come if we do not become more engaged. And you see, in the Occupy movement and even on the right wing, some really healthy self-reflection. Look at Ron Paul. He's got some crazy thoughts about certain things, but he's got some fantastic thoughts about other things. He recognizes the impropriety of the drug war, its moral bankruptcy; he understands it's racist, he understands it's classist; he's also a doctor, so he understands that drugs are a public-health issue not a criminal-justice issue. So there you have a right-wing libertarian who would agree very deeply with Noam Chomsky on this subject. So that's one example, and we could give 500 others, that speak to the possibility of change when the clouds have gathered most darkly.

But I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a time in human history in America when the clouds had gathered more darkly over a group of people than the way in which the drug war has targeted first black Americans and then later poor Americans.

Why isn't your opinion of how we can fix things included in the film?

Very simply, it's not about me. It's not about one person's opinion. It's not simple like that. Very smart minds struggle with this. But if we can make a film that inspires public engagement, and if we don't overload it with an overly simplified opinion, then it has a lot of oxygen in it and it will bring in a lot of people who want to breathe. Then it can be used for the purposes of many. And many people have different ways that they want to see this system reformed. One group wants to go up against mandatory minimums. Another group thinks drug education would be better if it began earlier. There are ways all over the country – whether it's medical marijuana, unfair police practices, lack of programs in the prisons, misguided priorities between law enforcement and corrections, the desire for rehabilitative hope in the prisons -- here we are a Christian country with no concept of mercy or forgiveness in our justice system. We have people in jail who are 85 years old, who have been there for 40 years. People who committed their crimes before there was color TV.

The absurdity of the situation would be funny if it weren't so tragic.

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