The House I Live In (film)

The House I Live In (Directed by Eugene Jarecki)/2012

This is a documentary that wants to cause social change. It presents one side of a story as powerfully and clearly as possible. Director Eugene Jarecki would argue that this does not lessen the quality of the film as we have heard the other side of the story all of our lives in a multitude of forms and it has fully permeated the way we think about the issue.

The House I Live In is about the war on drugs. The statement ‘war on drugs’ first came into popular consciousness when Richard Nixon called it America’s number one priority. It is a war that was continued by every American president after Nixon, and adopted in various forms throughout the world: due to American political pressure, a reactionary media and international treaties.  War on drugs refers to the government’s aggressively punitive policy against drug use.

This documentary does not make the argument that drug use should be encouraged. Rather, it points out that more damage is done by our societies’ approach to drugs than the drug use itself. We treat drug use as a criminal act, rather than a health issue. We then place convictions on people so they cannot get good jobs, isolate non-violent offenders away from their families, and push the drug business into the realm of gangs, which creates incredible levels of violence.  Further it shows how all this has been driven by the political popularity the issue generates rather than an evidence-based drive to reduce harm.

David Simon, the director of the TV show the Wire, appears in the documentary and points out it would be one thing if we caused all this social damage and drug use actually went down, but there has been no correlation between the escalation of the war on drugs and a decrease in drug use. Moreover, it costs governments a fortune in prison costs ($100,000 a year in New Zealand), social welfare costs, court costs, and law enforcement costs.

The other more sinister side to the story is that the war on drugs is that throughout history it has mainly been a disguise for the war against ethnic minorities: Chinese, Mexicans and African Americans. The documentary points out that more African Americans are currently in prison on drug charges than were ever enslaved.  This is due to a culmination of lack of opportunities, poverty and racial profiling against African Americans.

Another issue that the documentary explores is the irrational sentencing regime in America for drug related offences.  It shows that the penalties do not necessarily reflect the harm caused but mass hysteria of public misconception of drugs.  This is exemplified in the mandatory minimum sentence regime and the 100 to 1 ratio of penalties against crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine.  The viewers may be surprised to find out that the only difference between crack and powder cocaine is some baking soda and water. Considering the propaganda on the evils of crack cocaine, it was a shocking revelation for me.

America has been forced to rethink this model due to the huge fiscal pressures that the war on drugs places on it. It is no surprise that it is financial rather than social cost that will probably lead to change in this area: I guess voters do not mind having a huge percentage of poor people locked away with little chance of integration due to lengthy isolation from society and convictions hanging over their heads.

One criticism of this documentary could be that it does not show an alternative or a way forward. In response, the resistance to change in this area is so great that dialogue cannot really occur until people realise fully how futile and cruel the current system is.

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