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


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.

AMY GOODMAN: Nannie Jeter, this is a story about the so-called drug war in America?


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your family in the context of that.

NANNIE JETER: Well, my son, which is deceased, his name is James Jeter, my youngest son. And he got on drugs when he was about 14. As he became more addicted to drugs, I couldn’t control him, and I could not discipline him. And so many things would disappear from the house: clothes and rent money, food money, everything that you left in your house and you trust your kids with. And it was like a, like I said, genie. You would see it today, and at nighttime it wasn’t there. And it was your last. And drug played that part in my life, that I became—I just hate anything to do with drugs, because it destroyed a family. And back in those days, you would be walking or taking the bus, and you would see someone else’s son taking furniture out of their neighbor house or their own parents’ house, selling it for this drug. And even back in those years, it still haven’t changed. There are—of the same thing for drugs.

I have a great-niece that had four children, and she is addicted to drugs. And for a while, she’ll go into rehab. And it still comes back to haunt her. It’s like something that she can’t get rid of. And that was the same thing with my son. And at the end, he just got so tired of drugs, and he had injected himself so much with drugs, it was in his—in his feet. Just, you can’t even imagine the abuse, the suffering that people go through addicted to drugs. And it is a sad thing.

And our—this country, where we can go into other countries and try to straighten that out, and we can’t even straighten out. And it’s a black thing, and it’s more prison to put young blacks in, all the blacks in, and there’s nothing been done about it. If you can send someone to the moon and all of the things that we are doing in this country, you sure can eliminate the drugs that’s coming. That’s my faith and my belief. And even in our own—in New Haven, I remember back last year when a lot of white teenagers were being killed at 16 with their driving license. We had a government that changed the rules so that we wouldn’t lose so many white teenagers. But it never was a rule—you don’t even hear any politician mention drugs or anything, you know, and that’s what really, really bother me an awful lot, that it destroyed people. It’s no trust there.

And different relatives, you can’t leave in your home. You have to lock up stuff. And stuff that you just bought and on credit and trying to pay for and live American—halfway—dream, it’s being stolen. It’s being stolen. And my son were—he would wait for the mailman. I had—my aunt was living. And he would wait 'til she would come to get mail, so he could get in the house and to take whatever that he could sell. And you beg, cry. You love. You love. You hate. It's nothing that you could do about it. And still, I have a niece that have a family that love her, and her kids now have reject her. She wants to get off drug. I do not believe that people do not want to get off drug. And you hear testimony of womens that is on drugs. It’s something that our country can change. We can change everything else.

AMY GOODMAN: And I think that’s really what this film is about. You have these facts and figures peppered throughout this film, Eugene. African Americans make up roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population, 14 percent of the drug users, yet they represent 56 percent of those incarcerated—


AMY GOODMAN: —for drug crimes.

EUGENE JARECKI: Have 90 percent in the federal system. So you have a 13 percent population. I mean, most people, for example, when they think of crack, they think, because that’s what the media has told us, that crack is a black drug. The fact is, blacks don’t use crack more than anybody else. And as a result, because blacks are only 13 percent of the country, they’re 13 percent of the crack users. So the remaining crack users, i.e. the majority, are white and brown. That’s something you would never even imagine, because that’s not how the laws are applied, it’s not how we hear about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Set up this clip for us around crack.

EUGENE JARECKI: Sure. Well, crack—you know, the crack phenomenon, which exploded in the 1980s, was built on a lie. Len Bias, the basketball player, had died of a heart issue related perhaps to cocaine. It was never even fully determined. And it was pretended at the time that it was crack. And Tip O’Neill and other Democrats, particularly, at that time wanted to appear tough on crime, like their Republican counterparts, and so they used Len Bias and other sort of "shock and awe" stories about crack to say there’s this terrible new drug that is so destructive.

And I totally empathize that—with Nannie, about losses she has seen, that people have experienced, due to drugs. That’s no question. But what you’ll see in the clip is the way in which lies and propaganda by the U.S. government about drugs not only make—they make the problem worse, because they don’t solve the problem that the drug may represent, which is a public health problem. Her son was a victim of a public health problem. What do you do about addictive drugs in the world? That’s a question that’s worth debating and worth figuring out the public health policies for. But instead what we’ll see is, the way that Ronald Reagan and others of both parties have used these issues is to make it a criminal justice opportunity, a law opportunity. 

CHILD: Don’t take my mother, please!

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: When Reagan announced that he was planning to rev up the drug war, more than ever, it was political opportunity, because at the time drug crime was actually on the decline, not on the rise. Less than 2 percent of the American population even identifies drugs as the nation’s top priority. But then, of course, they got lucky.

BOB SCHIEFFER: Crack cocaine.

DAN RATHER: Crack, the super-addictive and deadly cocaine concentrate.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Crack hit the streets, and suddenly there was a hysteria about this brand new demon-like form of cocaine.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Today, there’s a new epidemic: smokable cocaine, otherwise known as crack. It is an uncontrolled fire.

The American people want their government to get tough and to go on the offensive. That’s exactly what we intend, with more ferocity than ever before.

POLICE OFFICER 1: Police, freeze!

POLICE OFFICER 2: Here is your crack.

MARK MAUER: It’s inescapable that the image of the crack user at the time was a young black man, whether or not that was correct.

CARL HART: What we saw were images of black urbanites on TV smoking crack cocaine over and over and over. And then these incredible stories were being associated with crack cocaine, and they were taken as fact.

HAROLD DOW: The drug so powerful it will empty the money from your pockets, make you sell the watch off your wrist, the clothes off your back.

ROBERT STUTMAN: Or kill your mother. Yep, that’s what we’re seeing.

CARL HART: But if you go back to the 1920s and the ’30s, this is what people were saying about marijuana.

FILM CLIP: Alvin takes that frying pan from the stove and kills his mother with it. Not a very nice thing to look at, but this is marijuana.

CARL HART: If you say that now in our society, people will look at you like you’re crazy.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the film, The House I Live In. It won the Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Documentary this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival. We’ll be back with the director, Eugene Jarecki, and Nannie Jeter, one of the subjects of his film, in a moment.


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