“The War on Drugs may be well-intentioned / but it falls f**kin’ flat when you stop to mention / an overcrowded prison where a rapist gets paroled / to make room for a dude who has sold / a pound of weed – to me, that’s a crime…”
— Nick Hexum, “Offbeat Bare-Ass”, from 311’s “Grassroots”
It touches all of us and it takes many forms. People are treated for many types of addictions – gambling, food, drink, violence, even sex; but an addiction to drugs can be the most costly one of them all. The physical toll it takes on one’s body, the financial toll it takes on one’s bank account, the spiritual toll it takes on one’s self-worth and morals, and the emotional toll it wreaks on family members who have to stand by and watch as their loved one descends into nightmarish circumstances. Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki seeks to tackle drugs, addiction, and the prison system that deals with it all in his new documentary titled The House I Live In. It’s an extremely personal look into the many hows and whys of drug addiction and how it affects our society and our families.
My favorite thing about The House I Live In is that it doesn’t shy away from the niggling questions we have concerning drugs, their relation to class and race, and what is being done – or not being done – to battle it. Jarecki covers all walks of life, from his own privileged upbringing with a nanny whose son was addicted to drugs, to a man serving a life sentence because of the “three strikes” rule, to a woman whose only source of income is to sling drugs on the corner, to ex-junkies whose offspring are caught in the same loop as they were… it’s a heartbreaking 108 minutes to stomach, and it’s full of stories that we see and hear every day in the news or in our backyards.
The disparity between the middle class and the lower class in the United States is mostly delineated by the chances one has to change their situation. As a son of a middle class couple, I can’t even being to fathom not having the chances or the choices I was given as a child and as an adult. The House I Live In shows a lot of the people who have no chance at a normal life – people who were raised in poor neighborhoods whose schools were underfunded, whose hopes and dreams are defined by the action they see on the streets. One person interviewed says that he picked up his life as a drug dealer because he wanted to be the guy on the block who had everything and made every day “like Christmas.” Within these poor communities, street violence, drug use and addiction are a permanent cycle, and it’s hard not to see it in racial terms. Jarecki notes that a crack cocaine arrest carries a 100:1 ratio of a jail sentence compared to that of a powder cocaine arrest; when it’s shown that crack was considered a “black drug” and powder was considered a “white drug”, one has to ask oneself if the War on Drugs is racially biased.
The other topic at which Jarecki has aimed his camera is the mandatory sentencing of drug offenders. Because of the War on Drugs and the toughness that our politicians have to project in order to get elected, a non-violent crime such as drug trafficking on a first offense is shown to have a worse sentence than that of a violent crime. One subject of Jarecki’s is shown at his court hearing, where a judge has even said that the offender doesn’t have a record of violence and that the mandatory 20-year sentence doesn’t fit the crime. This judge, along with other people, are shown as figures who want to change this skewed sense of “justice” for the betterment of society, but are often blocked at every turn in their crusade by appellate courts, the Supreme Court, and society’s misgivings about addicts and the dangers that they represent.
The House I Live In is an extremely naked, informative, and powerful documentary in that it doesn’t stop the viewer from feeling the heartbreak of addiction and its effects; its use of subjects from all walks of life – from the privileged to those brought up in the projects – helps broaden its appeal and slams its point home with a message that everyone can see. The War on Drugs is an expensive endeavor that has its heart in the right place, but winds up hurting more than helping. Jarecki does approach this with a bit of a colored eye – his childhood housekeeper had a son who succumbed to his drug addiction, and he has created this documentary with passion and emotion. While some questions are answered, one large one still remains: who’s winning the War on Drugs? Watch The House I Live In and see for yourself.