“We decided to deal with a health problem as if it was a legal problem. Addiction is an effect of human unhappiness and human suffering. When people are distressed they want to soothe their distress. When people are in pain, they want to soothe their pain. So the real question is not why the addiction, but why the pain?”
-Gabor Maté, The House I Live In, 2013
The war on drugs in America has a long and complicated history. The film The House I Live In, by Eugene Jarecki, explores the war on drugs in America. This film was released to the public in 2013 and has since gained popularity. Before its public release, in 2012 the film won the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury prize for the documentary category. As director and writer, Jarecki shows his personal involvement with the war on drugs and how it has affected his life. His interest and passion truly manifests itself within this film, as he examines the war on drugs through many different perspectives. Jarecki himself has an interest in telling the stories of other people, and human rights, which we can see from his other films. One of those films in particular is The Trials Of Henry Kissinger, an exposé of the human rights violations caused by Kissinger over the years that he worked for the U.S. government.
The movie, The House I Live In begins with a deeper look into Jarecki’s personal connection to the war on drugs. As a child, Jarecki had a housekeeper whose son died of AIDS due to his heavy involvement with drugs. Jarecki was close to this family, and saw how the drug war disproportionately affected different races in the United States (Jarecki, 2012).
To understand this we must first look back at the history of the war on drugs in America. While most people might think of former President Richard Nixon when they think of the war on drugs, many scholars claim the war started much earlier than Nixon’s presidency. In the film, Jarecki shares a brief history of how he views the war on drugs began. Before 1907 drugs were legal in the United States. When people were perceived to have a drug addiction they were treated as if they had a medical condition, they were not just thrown in jail. In 1907, opium smoking was made illegal. And while one would think this is just because of the dangers of drugs, but opium was actually associated with Chinese immigrants in the United States in the early 1900’s. The law worked to throw those who smoked Opium in jail for their use. This was advantageous for Americans at the time because this law would prevent immigrants from taking their jobs. The film proposes that this was the start of many laws that would follow that would disproportionately affect one race. The next laws were made against cocaine which at the time African Americans used as a tool that let them work harder and for longer. Next came laws against Marijuana, which affected Mexican people. And the list continues. Only recently have we seen a drug that disproportionately affects white people. Methamphetamine, as quoted in the movie is seen as the drug of white people. Its main usage is by lower income white people. This goes to show that drug laws have disproportionately affected different cultural groups over time.
However, like I stated in the beginning, we hear the actual term ‘war on drugs’ coined by Nixon during his presidency. The documentary points out that this is actually a campaign tactic. It was a way to gain public support and votes for the Nixon presidency. It was not about the safety of Americans but rather just a way to get votes.
Understanding the history of drugs helps us to see why the ‘war on drugs’ is how it is today. The film follows the lives and stories of several people who are in some way involved with the war on drugs. The film shows several inmates whose sentence is a result of drug laws. One of the most pressing stories is the story of Maurice Haltiwanger. He is being sentenced for possession of 50 grams of crack. Why his story is particularly interesting is because even though he is not a violent person, his best chance in sentencing is 20 years for the possession of cocaine. This is because of what is called mandatory minimum sentencing. This means that even if the judge thinks that a person should be sentenced 5 years, because of mandatory minimum sentencing they have a minimum that that person must be sentenced, like 20 in Haltiwanger’s case. For people like Maurice who grew up without a father and with a mother who was addicted to drugs, selling drugs and living that lifestyle truly seemed like the only option. Now Maurice is serving 20 years in federal prison, because of a law that says he has to serve at least that amount. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws are typically carried by drugs that are common in African American communities. This is leading to higher incarceration rates of African Americans like Maurice.
“With only 5% of the worlds population, the United States holds 25% of the world prisoners, over 500,000 are incarcerated for non-violent drug crimes.” –The House I Live In
Where this movie really touches on human rights is with the unequal incarceration of certain races due to mandatory minimum sentencing of drugs that disproportionately effect non-white communities. An example of a racial disparity in mandatory minimum sentencing is with crack versus cocaine. Cocaine and crack are chemically similar drugs with the exception that crack has water and baking soda added to it. However, the sentencing between these two drugs differs astronomically. In the movie Judge Mark Bennett gives the example that for someone who is charged with 5 grams of crack cocaine, a similar person would be charged the same amount with 500 grams of powder cocaine. There is a 100 to one difference between the two drugs and the sentencing that follows. This rings true to the history of the drug war. As I mentioned earlier, drug laws have historically affected minority groups of people over others throughout time. The cracks vs. cocaine mandatory minimum sentencing laws disproportionately incarcerate African Americans over white people. This is because crack is more commonly used by African Americans, where powder cocaine is more commonly used among white people. This shows that African American people are statistically more likely to get caught and serve more time that a white person with an almost identical or even worse crime. This is a human rights violation as one group of people is systematically being targeted and charged with crimes. This movie works to show the structural inequality that takes away the rights of certain peoples.
The movie also shows the perspective that police have on the war on drugs. Some police in this film talk about how they also disagree with the laws, and how unfair they are. They also talk about how police get monetary rewards when they do drug busts, versus solving other crimes. This has led to an increased crack down on drug laws as officers can get a lot of overtime hours and pay for sting operations, paperwork for arrests, and taking the substances to booking. This encourages police to seek out and profile any type of drug situation. One officer even admitted that he openly profiles people when looking for drugs in an area. The film does highlight two cops that reject the way the system works. They see flaws in how the system treats people who are drug abusers. They even, at one point, toss around ideas of what could help solve the issues that the country faces because of these harsh drug laws, or how they could change. This movie shows how at all levels people seem to be realizing that the drug war is not all it is cracked up to be.
This film is particularly relevant now as people are beginning to take notice of the effects that the war on drugs has on human rights. The human rights watch recently released their 2015 world report. In this they talk about human rights abuses or updates that have happened in the past year. This is a small section of what they had for drug reform in 2015:
“The federal government has begun to address disproportionately long sentences for federal drug offenders. At time of writing, President Barack Obama had commuted the sentences of 86 prisoners in 2015, 76 of them drug offenders. Yet more than 35,000 federal inmates remain in prison after petitioning for reconsideration of their drug sentences. In October, the Bureau of Prisons released more than 6,000 people who had been serving disproportionately long drug sentences; the releases resulted from a retroactive reduction of federal drug sentences approved by the US Sentencing Commission.” –(Human Rights Watch, 2016)
As stated above, the tides are beginning to change as people take notice. However, we are nowhere near where we should be with the changing of laws of mandatory minimum sentencing. Perhaps the best example of this is that just last week drug laws were passed about prescription opioids (New York Times, 2016). In the war on drugs it seems like we are consistently taking one step forward and one step backward. Jarecki lays out a convincing argument and there is still much to do in the way of the war on drugs and human rights.
Human Rights Watch. (2016). United States Events in 2015. Retrieved May 05, 2016, from https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2016/country-chapters/united-states
Jarecki, E. (Director). (2012). The House I Live In [Motion picture on Online Film]. United States: Sundance Films.
The Associated Press. (2016, April 27). House Panel Approves Bipartisan Drug-Abuse Legislation. Retrieved May 05, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2016/04/27/us/politics/ap-us-congress-drug-abuse.html?_r=0