Friday, October 12, 2012

"The House I Live In" presents the War on Drugs as right-wing class warfare; criticizes mandatory minimum sentences


I recall Harry Browne, Libertarian Party presidential candidate in the 1990s, repeatedly saying, “We have to end this war on drugs”.  The argument was facile: by making drugs illegal, we make it profitable for people to try to make, sell and traffic them underground.

I also remember Richard Nixon’s announcing his “War on Drugs” in 1971, and the NYC subway signs in 1973 warning people “don’t get caught holding the bag” when New York State passed a tough new drug law.

I remember Nancy Reagan and her pious “Just say no.”

I remember Oliver North, on his radio talk show in the 1990s, saying that people who buy drugs are responsible for the wrongs of the world.  Get rid of the demand by criminalizing it.  That has long been a way of looking at “moral” issues.  If you could cast every illicit desire to transcend one’s reality as a character flaw, and enforce laws against it, everything wrong with the world, all the unfairness, would be fixed.  It’s all about individual morality, right?  Remember “The Moral Majority”? 

The new documentary by Eugene Jarecki, “The House I Live In”, starts with a brief retrospect of a family surviving the Holocaust, and his determination that he owes something back to the world for the life he was able to lead after all.  He quickly moves to the “War on Drugs”, as it emerged in the early 1970s, as an attack on “immoral individuals”.  He gives a sound-bite of former NYC major Giuliani talking about “personal responsibility”.  But then he moves to the ghetto, and shows how drug trafficking is the only “employer” in the inner city ghetto, which is like a “one company town”.

He traces how individual drugs became illegal.  Opium was criminalized in order to put down Chinese immigrants who competed for American jobs.  A similar history exists for marijuana and Latinos in the 1930s, although much of the criminalization seems to have been motivated to keep hemp from competing with other forest products in big business.  Cocaine was seen as a drug of African Americans (although it was also a source of pleasure for the idol rich), and crack cocaine was especially so.  Therefore, criminalizing use (possession, sale, distribution) of a substance could be seen as a way to imprison and contain many members of a minority.  Finally the same thing happened with meth, which tended to attract poor working class whites and gays.  (I have yet to meet a gay person addicted to meth, so that idea may be an exaggeration.)  The practice of mandatory minimums continued, as was illustrated with a white man in Iowa who, after layoff, sold a little meth and got sentenced to life without parole.  (ABC 20-20 had covered a Montana couple that grew marijuana inside to protect its ranch from foreclosure during the farm crisis, even at the urging of the couple’s bank.)

Toward the end, the film shows prison, often being taken over by private companies, as big and profitable business.  So there is a temptation to take the “bottom 15%” of people whom the workforce doesn’t “need” and keep them in prison (that is, concentration camps) as “business”.  Jarecki concludes by showing that this kind of thinking helped create Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.  Find and enemy and make money putting it away. 

The film interviews a judge in Iowa who sees the fallacy in mandatory minimum sentence laws.


The official site (starts Shockwave) from Charlotte Street films is here 

I saw this Friday afternoon at the West End Theater in Washington DC before an almost sold out audience. 

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