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THE HOUSE I LIVE IN: A fascinating expose on the (racist) war on drugs

Since 1970, it has cost America $2.5 trillion and led to 44 million arrests.

Of the 2.3 million Americans behind bars, 500,000 have been arrested for it.

Due in large part to its excessively draconian laws, with only five percent of the world’s population, the United States accounts for 25 percent of its prisoners.

The War on Drugs is placed under the microscope in Eugene Jarecki’s (WHY WE FIGHT, ’05) comprehensive documentary, THE HOUSE I LIVE IN. Tracing the history of the drug war from the birth of the narc—and drug usage as a fringe, countercultural phenomenon—to the crack cocaine epidemic of the ‘80s and ‘90s (and subsequent racist practices in the enforcement of drug laws), Jarecki’s damning critique leaves no stone unturned. It even contains plenty of valuable insight from former Baltimore beat reporter-cum-creator of HBO’s THE WIRE, David Simon.

“You’re watching poor, uneducated people fed into a machine like meat to make sausage,” says investigative reporter Charles Bowden in the film.

Unlike his previous doc efforts, Jarecki introduces his film as both a spiritual journey and social commentary, providing his own family history as motivation for this searing expose, including his relatives fleeing persecution from Nazis, and his childhood nanny, Nannie Jenner, whose own son was lost to drugs. Though it initially seems like a stretch, Jarecki eventually backs up his claims of personal investment, bridging the historical gap between past and present.

The main focus of Jarecki’s film, however, is the iniquities of the legal system in the war on drugs. Thirteen percent of America is black, and thirteen percent of crack users are black, so the vast majority of crack users in America are not black, and yet they represent ninety percent of those handled in the federal system for crack charges. And regardless of intent, defendants with prior drug felonies are often subject to harsh mandatory minimum sentencing, leading to a vicious cycle of incarceration—especially for those in the crack game.

“Crack and powder are the same, but in the 1980s when crack appeared on the scene, woefully divorced from science, claims were made by politicians to make crack activity be punished one hundred times worse than powder,” Jarecki told Sundance Channel. “Whether it was racist in intent or not, it became de facto racist when congress was aware of how disproportionately these laws were putting African-Americans away in jail when other people using the same substance under different conditions were not.”

Jarecki’s film examines the War on Drugs from all sides, including embedding with a drug dealer, going on drug raids with narcotics officers, as well as interviews with prisoners, families destroyed by drugs, professors, journalists, and judges. While the laws deviating crack and cocaine prison stints have come down a bit—you now stand to receive a sentence eighteen times worse for crack than cocaine—Jarecki says it’s “slim solace” for those fighting for reform.

So what can be done?

“When Obama came into power, like with many issues, people expected a tremendous about of passionate change to come from Obama who had, as a candidate, talked quite provocatively about the problems with the drug war,” said Jarecki. “There have been certain steps forward and certain steps back and that has left those of us seeking to reform the drug war reminded that it is up to us to push changes in these laws so that politicians are led to the changes they need to represent.” He adds, “The public is not being served or profiting by this, so it’s only we who can cut the cord from its lifeline.”

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