In June 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a "war on drugs." Four decades later, the United States has spent an estimated $1 trillion on the battle with no end in sight.
"What have we accomplished?" asked filmmaker Eugene Jarecki in an interview with The Huffington Post. "Drugs are cheaper, more available, and being used by younger and younger people than ever before."
Jarecki's latest documentary, "The House I Live In," playing now in New York City and opening in Los Angeles on Friday, takes a look at what the nation's efforts to curb illegal drug sales have produced.
Perhaps the most palpable change, he said, is that the U.S. has transformed into the prison capital of the world.
The nation has 5 percent of the world's population, yet accounts for 25 percent of its prisoners. That's 2.3 million Americans behind bars, including 500,000 currently locked up for nonviolent drug offenses, according to the film. And yet, the documentary says, the rate of illegal drug use remains the same as it was when President Nixon began the battle.
Some academic research has shown that the burgeoning prison population is responsible for a small percentage in the drop in crime rates over the last two decades. But Jarecki and many researchers argue that the return on locking up people diminishes substantially as more and more people are put behind bars.
What the drug war has accomplished is the creation of a powerful special interest that Jarecki and other prison reform advocates describe as the "prison industrial complex" -- an increasingly influential and profitable private prison industry.
"The prison industrial complex is perhaps, at least domestically, the most striking example of us putting profit before people," Jarecki said. "It all stems from one basic misunderstanding: that the public good can be shepherded by private interests."
But, according to Jarecki, it's more than just private prison companies that hinder the efforts to reform the judicial system.
"Every congressperson will tell you that one or another corporate interest is very important to them," Jarecki said. "They have to weigh the broader interests of their constituents against the priorities of keeping jobs flowing to their district and cash going into their campaign coffers."
Like so many other debates today, Jarecki said, it largely comes down to jobs.
"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," Jarecki said in a previous interview with HuffPost. "That's what you're up against. That's what makes it hard, even though we know better."
Jarecki's policy prescription is not to hand all those prison workers pink slips, but rather to channel their efforts toward rehabilitation rather than punishment.
"These are people with a vast amount of experience," Jarecki said. "These people would already have a new home in this more compassionate system."
Corrections officers wouldn't be the only ones better employed with an end to the drug war. According to Jarecki, police would be able to spend more time tracking down murderers, rapists and robbers; judges wouldn't have their hands tied by mandatory minimum sentences; and overworked public defenders would see their case loads dramatically reduced.
One of the most striking aspects of Jarecki's documentary is the broad swath of voices that express their dismay over the drug war. Prison guards, police officers and judges all see little hope of winning this war.
"That was probably the biggest surprise of making the film," Jarecki said. "I had imagined that prisoners would hate it and those who run corrections and enforce the laws would be advocates. I was astonished that I would find those people working in the system that are themselves victimized."
Jarecki would like to see the U.S. move toward a decriminalization model much like Portugal's. But he knows that transformation won't take place without a fight.
Right now, Jarecki said, battles are being waged at the local level.
In New York City, civil rights advocates are fighting the police department's controversial "stop and frisk" policy, which has led to warrantless searches of hundreds of thousands of mostly minority New Yorkers.
In California, a pending ballot initiative would tweak the state's "three strikes, you're out" law so that a person's third offense would have to be violent to trigger a mandatory life sentence.
On the Jarecki documentary's website, visitors can type in their zip code to find pressing legislative issues in their community.
"The House I Live In" won the grand jury prize for U.S. documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
Related on HuffPost:
In late August 2012, prosecutors in the western Mexico state of Michoacan say soldiers found charred human remains buried in at least five clandestine graves and left on the slopes of a hill in the town of Tuxpan, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/21/mexico-violence-tuxpan_n_1819909.html?utm_hp_ref=mexico-drug-wars" target="_hplink">according to the Associated Press</a>. Prosecutors said the troops found more than 150 pieces of bone, some mixed with pieces of wood and coal.
An airport police officer stands guard at the scene where a shooting took place in Mexico City's international airport on Monday, June 25, 2012. Two people were killed and one was wounded at one of the airport's terminals, and according to the federal Public Safety Department, at least one was a federal police officer. On Aug. 19, the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/19/mexico-city-airport-police_n_1807907.html?utm_hp_ref=mexico-drug-wars" target="_hplink">AP reported</a> that Mexico's federal police have replaced all 348 officers assigned to security details at the airport. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)
State prosecutors in Mexico <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/18/mexico-violence-dismembered-bodies_n_1800955.html?utm_hp_ref=mexico-drug-wars" target="_hplink">told the AP in late August</a> 2012 that at least five dismembered bodies had been found in Durango. That state is the scene of a violent drug cartel rivalry. The state attorney general's office says the bodies of four men and one woman were found in 12 plastic bags in the town of Gomez Palacio. <strong>CAPTION:</strong> Forensic personnel walk by a trailer containing bodies found in mass graves across the Mexican city of Durango on May 16, 2011. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)
On Aug. 13, 2012, gunmen killed eight people in a bar in the northern Mexico city of Monterrey, which has recently seen bloody turf battles between the Gulf cartel and the Zetas gang, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/14/mexico-violence-bar-attack_n_1776202.html?utm_hp_ref=mexico-drug-wars" target="_hplink">according to the AP.</a> Nuevo Leon state security spokesman Jorge Domene told the AP a ninth person died, apparently when he fell trying to flee the attackers across rooftops.
Police found the dead bodies of 14 men stuffed into a SUV near a gas station in a northern Mexican city in August 2012, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/10/mexico-violence-bodies-suv_n_1762120.html?utm_hp_ref=mexico-drug-wars" target="_hplink">according to the AP.</a> Three hours later a shootout between soldiers and gunmen killed three people in the same city, authorities said. The victims in the SUV apparently had been shot to death and evidence suggested the killings were drug-related, Gabriela Gonzalez, spokeswoman for the San Luis Potosi state prosecutor's office, told the AP. <strong>CAPTION:</strong> Soldiers march during a flag lowering ceremony in downtown Mexico City on April 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
In June 2012, police found the tortured bodies of three young paramedics and a salesman with gunshot wounds along a highway in the western state of Michoacan, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/03/paramedics-killed-mexico_n_1566454.html?utm_hp_ref=mexico-drug-wars" target="_hplink">according to the AP.</a> The reasons for the deaths were not immediately clear, but the men came from the neighboring state of Jalisco. That is the base of a gang allied with the Sinaloa cartel.
Authorities say gunmen opened fire with automatic rifles inside a drug rehabilitation center in northern Mexico in June 2012, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/04/mexico-drug-rehab-center-shooting_n_1568008.html?utm_hp_ref=mexico-drug-wars" target="_hplink">according to the AP.</a> Eleven men were killed. Survivors told police that four gunmen who arrived in three cars entered the center and started firing. CAPTION: In this March 6, 2012, photo, people at the CIRAD drug rehabilitation center attend a group meeting in Tijuana, Mexico. (AP Photo/Alejandro Cossio)
Mexican prosecutors have released surveillance videos that show five city policemen kidnapping three men from a hotel in western Mexico in June 2012. The men later were found asphyxiated and beaten to death.
Forty-nine dismembered bodies were found strewn on a Mexican highway leading to the Texas border in May 2012, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/23/mexico-violence_n_1695788.html?utm_hp_ref=mexico-drug-wars" target="_hplink">according to the AP</a>. Authorities have captured and charged Daniel Elizondo, the alleged cell leader for the notorious Zetas drug cartel, with the killings. <strong>CAPTION:</strong> In this May 13, 2012, photo, forensic experts examine the area where dozens of bodies, some of them mutilated, were found on a highway connecting the northern Mexican metropolis of Monterrey, Mexico, to the U.S. border. (AP Photo/Christian Palma)
Suspected drug cartel gunmen opened fire on a hotel being used as a police barracks in Ciudad Victoria, Mexico, and then attacked it with a car bomb in May 2012, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/25/mexico-zetas-cartel-attack_n_1544882.html?utm_hp_ref=mexico-drug-wars" target="_hplink">the AP reported.</a> Eight officers were wounded in the attack. Officials believe the Zetas cartel was responsible for the violence. <strong>CAPTION:</strong> A Mexican federal policeman inspects an abandoned car on March 1, 2012, in Acapulco, Mexico. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)