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Thursday, May 2, 2013 07:03 am

We’re all losers in the War on Drugs

A new documentary chronicles a 40-year failed policy

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Iowa prison officials escort Maurice Haltiwanger as he awaits sentencing for a drug conviction. The House I Live In follows Haltiwanger and others involved with the War on Drugs and shows the profound effects drug laws have had on society.

The “War on Drugs” launched by President Richard Nixon in the 1970s has had a lasting effect on society that can be felt decades later.  

For many American families the War on Drugs has created grief, separation and a continuous cycle of poverty. In the film The House I Live In, the drug industry in America is explored through the eyes of prisoners, judges, police officers and prison guards. Eugene Jarecki, director, writer and producer of the film, chronicles the beginning of the war, its purpose and the current state.

Released in October of 2012, the documentary has been showing in limited release across the country and on April 8, it premiered on PBS.

Melinda Shopsin, producer of the film, said, “We have an incredibly vested interest in a system that nobody believes is working – 40 years of policy 1 trillion dollars and 45 millions arrests. And drugs are cheaper, they’re more available, and they’re more potent. It’s very hard to say that we have progressed in dealing with the problem….”

Early in the film it’s acknowledged that the first proponents of the War on Drugs understood the need for drug treatment as well as incarceration, but over time treating the drug dealers and users like political enemies became popular. It seems as though the only thing the War on Drugs affected is the lives of the poor and disproportionally incarcerated minorities.  

Nannie Jetter, Jarecki’s childhood nanny, is the inspiration for the film as the director sees how greatly drugs have impacted her family. Nannie and Jarecki take the audience through the War on Drugs from the perspective of a family member who seems helpless as she loses loved ones to prison, death and addiction.

Dr. Gabor Mate, physician and addiction expert in the film, said treating drug use only as a legal issue has helped create and maintain the problem in America. “The thing with the war on drugs,” Mate said, “is that it tries to deal with the health problem as if it were a legal problem. Addiction is an effect on human unhappiness and human suffering. When people are distressed they want to soothe their distress, when people are in pain they want to soothe their pain. So the real question is not why the addiction, but why the pain?”

Starting with Shanequa Benitez, Maurice Haltiwanger and Anthony Jackson, the audience is allowed to hear the dealers’ side of the story. A common theme among each of their stories is that they became drug dealers because there was no other economic opportunity in their neighborhoods. Benitez is the only dealer still working in the streets as Haltiwanger and Johnson both face prison time. Haltiwanger is facing a minimum sentence of 20 years while Johnson faces at least five. Both were jailed for nonviolent drug crimes. Mark Bennett, U.S. district court judge for Northern Iowa, said the drug problem in the U.S. has led to him sentencing more than 2,600 people. Bennett said he felt conflicted about having to give offenders mandatory minimum sentences and wishes he could stop adding to the disparity of minorities in prison.

Jarecki’s curiosity about the war doesn’t stop with the criminals and judges. He also wants to know what the police and prison workers think. Much to my surprise, there was a certain level of honesty from the police during the film. At one point in their careers they believed the government was doing the right thing by trying to crack down on drugs. But after seeing how many lives they have negatively impacted, they started to wonder if the War on Drugs is as effective as they thought.

Eric Franklin, warden of Lexington Corrections in Lexington, Okla., acknowledged that a major component lacking in the War on Drugs is treatment. He said, “People want to lock people up and keep them locked away and then when their sentence is over they expect this person to be reformed or a different person. But if you haven’t given them any skills or trained them, then how can they be?”

The film serves as a disturbing reminder of how America has viewed minorities as disposable commodities. Although many immigrants came to America to work, once they achieved economic success white Americans no longer wanted them in the country.

According to Richard Miller, a Lincoln historian and commentator in the film, historically anti-drug laws have always been associated with race. Starting with the use of opium, Chinese were the first targeted by anti-drug laws. Laws progressed over time, targeting African-Americans, Hispanics and now poor whites.

The film is a testament to how laws enacted for political gain have destroyed generations of families and are in need of major reform. The House I Live In connects all Americans to the War on Drugs and takes what some may think is only the prisoners’, judges’, police officers’ and prison guards’ problem and makes it our own.

Contact Jacqueline Muhammad at intern@illinoistimes.com.

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