The House I Live In, director Eugene Jarecki’s vital, expansive documentary on America’s war on drugs, takes the same top to bottom approach as HBO’s The Wire: Everyone from federal judges to street-corner dealers are given a voice and an opportunity to weigh in. Even David Simon, who created The Wire and was a former crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun, shows up to address a situation that seems to have no possible beneficial outcome: Since 1971, more than $1 trillion and 45 million arrests later, the rate of drug use in the U.S. remains unchanged. Only the substances being abused have changed.
Instead of peppering the audience with dull facts and figures, Jarecki uses people to illustrate his main thesis, which is that the American legal system has resorted to punishing drug offenders — even casual users — and permanently ruining their lives instead of trying to rehabilitate them. The war on drugs has become too lucrative an industry to rethink or reconsider. Entire towns depend on prisons for employment; the lack of opportunity for young people growing up in projects or slums practically ensures they will eventually resort to drug dealing, feeding the machine; ridiculously excessive sentences ensure there will always be a need for more jails (one man in the film is condemned to life without parole for carrying three grams of meth).
In one of the movie’s most intriguing segments, Jarecki goes back to the turn of the century, where drugs such as cocaine and heroin were legal and used to treat medical conditions such as toothaches. The influx of Chinese immigrants helping build the nation’s railroads kept growing in numbers, and the government, noticing their fondness for opium, suddenly declared the drug illegal in order to be able to make arrests and control their numbers. A few years later, newspaper headlines screamed of the public menace of “Negro cocaine fiends.” The House I Live In has no qualms about making a connection between race and the war on drugs, because the statistics are irrefutable: Harvard professor Charles J. Ogletree points out that out of the two million people currently serving prison sentences for non-violent drug-related crimes, more than half are African-American. That leads to single-parent households in which children are left to their own devices, have no role models or incentives, and sadly follow the path of their incarcerated relatives.
The House I Live In is a work of journalism, not propaganda: Jarecki has done his research and leaves it to you to decide what to make of it (although the United States is the No. 1 country in the world in jailing its citizens; not even China or Saudi Arabia come close). The movie ends on a somewhat hopeful note, with President Obama signing laws designed to help addicts and abusers instead of just punishing them. On election day, Washington and Colorado legalized the recreational use of marijuana, which puts them on a collision path with the federal government, which still deems cannabis illegal. But compared to the astonishing injustices and violations shown in The House I Live In, the upcoming legal battles are a sign of progress.