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4 Best Films Exposing America's Insane War on Drugs

Viewers of these films don't have to choose between enriching their minds and enjoying themselves.

In the past year there has been an explosion of films that dare to intelligently explore the U.S. drug war.  Spurred by the rapid reform of cannabis policy, pot is increasingly becoming a centerpiece of American culture.

Out of the dozens of drug war films produced last year, these four stand above the rest, not just because of their technical excellence, but for their potential to provoke thoughtful debate on a subject of mindboggling complexity. Fortunately, each of these films is also engaging—even fun, at times—so that viewers don't have to choose between enriching their minds and enjoying themselves. Here’s why you should set aside the bong, power up the TV and watch these four extraordinary films.  

1. Code of the West: Code of the West is a cerebral but accessible meditation on the drug war's collateral damage. It gives an eye-level view of a single group of conscientious individuals who saw an urgent need for reform and stepped in to fill it.

Director Rebecca Richman Cohen, a graduate of Harvard Law School, brings plenty of intellectual firepower to bear on the complex machine of state politics. She summarizes the complexity of the American federal justice system in a way that clearly visualizes the stakes involved. She makes the law real for the viewer. Had she stopped there, her film would have been a wonderfully illuminating educational video… that no one wanted to watch. Thankfully, she used her understanding of a complex system as a springboard to jump in two simultaneous directions—one a gripping human tale, and the other a transcendent examination of power’s corruption.  

The gripping human tale is one in which Cohen skillfully blends policy with pathos. She counterbalances explications of drug war policies with fascinating character studies. The documentary's narrative focuses on the founders of Montana Cannabis, a compassion-driven medical marijuana collective in Cohen's Big Sky country backyard. Founders Tom Daubert, Chris Williams and Richard Flor witnessed the demand among sick Montanans to use medical marijuana and thought they could put together a more legitimate operation than some of the dispensaries that cropped up around the state after its voters approved a medical marijuana initiative in 2004.

They did everything they could to produce a professional, legal operation, even inviting local law enforcement to tour their facility. What happened to them, in the wake of a sudden and dramatic political shift, is nothing short of tragic.

This is how Code of the West finds its truly transcendent narrative – by balancing its human story and its deep legal understanding with a third story, one even more profound than the first two: the story of the lure of power. The forces that targeted Montana Cannabis and a dozen other dispensaries in a simultaneous sweep resulted from cold political calculation. While she focuses in on key political figures and holds them to account, Cohen reserves her harshest indictment for the political system itself, a vicious and calculating game which pays the wages of cruelty with a momentary bump in the polls.

[Note: While originally premiering at South by Southwest in 2012, Code of the West was rereleased in 2013 with updated reporting on the fates of the founders of Montana Cannabis.]

2. The House I Live In: What Code of the West achieves on an intimate scale, The House I Live In attains writ large. Director Eugene Jarecki—whose talent for intelligent yet sustainably outraged documentaries was proven with the anti-war screed Why We Fight in 2005—pivots his lens from the military-industrial complex to the machinations of an equally corrupt war fought at home, in neighborhoods and on street corners: the drug war.

Like Cohen, Jarecki makes use of human character studies to make complex policy real; but whereas Cohen's film offers complete, fleshed-out portraits of a single tight-knit group, Jarecki teases the viewer with brief humanizing vignettes, offering tantalizing glimpses of humanity across a wide spectrum of Americans, both rich and poor, white and black, cop and criminal. That the film keeps all of the characters distinct and relatable while simultaneously offering up a cogent critique of the U.S. war on drugs makes for a remarkable achievement.