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A Colossal Failure: Sundance Award-Winning Film Sheds New Light on Destructive Drug War

Amy Goodman interviews the Director of "The House I Live In" to explore the horrific failures of drug war, as well as the argument for a public health approach.

This weekend the top documentary prize at the Sundance Film Festival went to “The House I Live In,” which questions why the United States has spent more than $1 trillion on drug arrests in the past 40 years, and yet drugs are cheaper, purer, and more available today than ever. The film examines the economic, as well as the moral and practical, failures of the so-called “war on drugs,” and calls on the United States to approach drug abuse not as a “war,” but as a matter of public health. We need “a very changed dialogue in this country that understands drugs as a public health concern and not a criminal justice concern,” says the film’s Director Eugene Jarecki. “That means the system has to say, ‘We were wrong.’” We also speak with Nannie Jeter, who helped raise Jarecki as her own son succumbed to drug addiction and is highlighted in the film. We air clips from the film, featuring Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow;” Canadian physician and bestselling author, Gabor Maté; and David Simon, creator of “The Wire.”

AMY GOODMAN: As the Republican presidential candidates challenge President Obama with competing visions for how to improve the struggling U.S. economy, a new documentary questions the amount of money this country spends on the so-called "war on drugs." Over the last 40 years, more than 45 million drug-related arrests have cost an estimated $1 trillion. Yet drugs are cheaper, purer and more available today than ever. The documentary is called The House I Live In. It examines the economic, as well as the moral and practical, failures of the war on drugs and calls on the U.S. to approach drug abuse not as a war, but as a matter of public health.

The House I Live In won the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Documentary this past weekend at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, the largest independent film showcase in the country. Democracy Now! was there earlier in the week, and I spoke with the film’s director, Eugene Jarecki, along with one of his main characters in the film, Nannie Jeter, about what inspired him to look at the war on drugs.

EUGENE JARECKI: The film is a movie which was very much inspired by Nannie Jeter, who’s sitting with me. I grew up—I’ve known Nannie my whole life. Nannie worked with my family from the time I was a toddler and taught me a great deal about life and about the struggles of people in this country. And as I grew up, you know, I was very close with Nannie, and I was very close with members of her family, some of whom have come here to Sundance. And I grew up, and I’ve had a pretty privileged life. I’ve been able to become a filmmaker. I’ve met opportunity along the way. I’ve had a lot of positive experiences. And I noticed that young people in her family, who were growing up alongside me, were not having that kind of experience, and I wanted to know why.

I wanted to know why people I love and care about—I mean, I knew that we were all living in a post-civil-rights America. Nannie Jeter is African American. Her family is African American. But I thought that was all supposed to get better, and so I thought we were on a path all together, as I think a lot of people did. And yet, despite certain gains that African Americans have made, for the masses of black people in this country, it remains a pretty tough road to hoe. And I wanted to know what went wrong. And I began to learn that from Nannie, and that really sent me on a journey, because I started to ask her my first questions about what she thought had happened, even within her own family and community.