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Colorado, the War on Drugs, and the Money Behind It: A Q&A With Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki


The documentary maker behind 'The House I Live In' explains why the battle to change the way we treat drug use is not yet over.

It doesn't happen often, if ever, that an activist documentary is applauded by NPR, Roger Ebert, the New York Times, Forbes, and Reason magazine -- the last, a right-leaning libertarian publication. So when the multistar reviews align this way, as they did for Eugene Jarecki's The House I Live In -- as Indiewire declared, it's a film that "will blow your mind" -- it would seem that the days are numbered for the target of the filmmaker's wrath, in this case America's decades-old war on drugs.

As it turns out, Jarecki's terrific documentary, released in late 2012, predated a year that saw dramatic shifts in US public policy regarding drug control. Thanks to changes made in 2013, recreational marijuana use will become legal in Colorado as of tomorrow, and in Washington State later in 2014. The federal government has already indicated that it will not be interfering with state laws on legalized marijuana. Last August Attorney General Eric Holder also introduced measures that made it possible for judges to avoid triggering Draconian minimum sentencing requirements in cases involving nonviolent offenders.

Still, the war on drugs is not over, and neither is the movement to end it. Yes, we will be forced to endure an onslaught of pot jokes and stoner-culture puns in media coverage of Colorado's new law, but advocates of addiction treatment versus incarceration, like Jarecki, are not likely to find much humor in the situation yet.

In the The House I Live In, Jarecki follows the stories of men and women whose lives have been permanently altered by the drug war. He interviews police officers and judges who reluctantly keep the system moving despite having lost all faith in its effectiveness.

The documentary begins with Jarecki explaining why he's moved to fight for the oppressed -- in honor of his parents, two Holocaust survivors. In Jarecki's lifetime, the oppressed in his orbit was the family of an African-American woman named Nanny Jeter who worked for the filmmaker's family in his Connecticut childhood home and became a kind of second mother to Jarecki. Nanny's story inspires the filmmaker to identify how the war on drugs has created a chain of destruction targeting one class of Americans: Says one judge interviewed in the film (and seen in the trailer below), "We are incarcerating poor people who are drug addicts."

(Click here for more on how to download the movie for streaming.)

Recently, Minyanville had a chance to interview Jarecki about his film and some of the changes that have occurred in the US since the movie's release.

A key idea in your film is that market forces have led to and now sustain the war on drugs. Can you explain that further?

Market forces, in the most terrible way, begin to explain why a war that has a 40-year record of complete failure continues, despite every evidence that it has woefully fallen short of any of its stated purposes.

How else could it be that a war on which we have spent $1 trillion in 40 years, and for which we have made 45 million drug arrests, has nothing to show for it in terms of curbing drug use, addiction, or sale? Drugs are cheaper, purer, and more available than before, and they're used by younger and younger people.

How else could any bloated federal program of this kind continue except that some unwarranted force is acting upon the situation? And that is the force of economic vested interests who rely upon the continued or perpetuation of this insanity.

The unholy alliance between those in government and those in the corporate sector -- from the largest prison conglomerates down to the most everyday worker in a state of federal facility; that entire family of Americans who rely upon our phenomenon of mass incarceration for their livelihood -- that is the primary market force that is keeping us from examining this situation of grotesque failure.

The larger forces that lie in all the jobs, all of the contracts and the all of the money flow that is so dependent on a steady flow of human beings through our system of law enforcement, adjudication, and incarceration -- all of that is the set of market forces that explain how we've now come to defy common sense in dealing with addiction as a national issue.

But now it appears that market forces are failing? Why?

Because it is grotesquely wasteful and expensive to try to address what is a public health problem -- addiction -- as though it were crime. Take a country like Portugal, which 10 years ago, decriminalized all possession of all drugs across the board up to the amount at which you're clearly a dealer. Portugal has seen tremendously positive results from that decriminalization because they took a vast criminal justice enterprise and converted it instead into a treatment enterprise. With decriminalization, HIV rates have dropped, drug use among the young has dropped, drug-related violence has dropped, and of course the workload of the criminal justice system has dropped precipitously, representing a huge savings, just a small part of which has been spent on treatment, making it one of the most robust treatment centers in the world.

Anyone who has studied this for five minutes knows that treatment is far more effective than criminal justice as an approach to addiction. It costs far less because, when you treat someone as a criminal who is fundamentally just a young, lost soul in need of guidance, or an increasingly inveterate addict, you are doing nothing to address the problem of their addiction.

Indeed, most often you make the conditions that foster and permit their addictions worse. You make them poorer, less able to get a job, more vulnerable to the influences that lie in prison rather than the influences of the church or school or other institutions of the outside world. You criminalize people, which has a snowball effect, leading to further criminalization, further addiction, and further involvement in underground economies.

Treatment is far more efficient; even Richard Nixon knew that. Though Nixon launched the war on drugs in main, he spent two-thirds of his drug budget on treatment rather than law enforcement. Today we don't spend 5% on treatment. Our public officials will lie to you and tell you we do, but the truth is we don't.

The system is broken in every single way. Common sense would have told us it's broken, but thankfully now the terrible failure that's revealed in the numbers tells us how broken it is.

In the film you also talk about taxing and regulating marijuana, which has obviously become a more popular position. What is your pro-legalization argument?

Can you imagine how stupid it feels for me to have to rehash the lessons of prohibition that the country already learned?

We did this already. It was a complete organized-crime disaster, with the same kind of violence that has ensued with our contemporary war on drugs, except that today's is far more violent, far more disruptive, and has failed even more desperately. We are simply doing Prohibition again. It's as if people liked the movie so much the first time, they wanted to see it again.

The way we fixed it last time was by realizing that the way we treated addiction was the wrong approach to the problem, and we made alcohol into a controlled substance that the government taxes and regulates. And so alcohol can not be sold to minors, and cannot be consumed by a minor. Grown-ups are permitted to use it, but they must consume it responsibility, and if they don't, there are crimes associated with not doing so. It's the last addiction that the country dealt with on a mass scale.

Do you find it significant that Attorney General Eric Holder has changed the rules regarding in mandatory sentencing, or that Obama has said that the federal government will not interfere in Colorado or Washington?

I think those are huge developments. As strong a critic as I've been of the relative apathy of the Obama administration, I have to also say I was terribly moved and impressed by the move made by the attorney general to basically recognize that the mandatory minimum laws that have been passed by Congress are out of control and misguided. And yet so difficult to reform.

Congresspeople across the board have developed such a vested interest in pleasing corporations and the industrial interest that support them, and [Holder] recognized that it is highly unlikely that the mandatory minimum laws themselves can easily be changed. Yet he has the power to direct his prosecutors federally across the country to simply avoid triggering those mandatory minimums by not including certain key bits of information -- like quantity of drugs possessed or involved [in an arrest] -- so that the mandatory minimum sentences connected to such elements are simply not triggered.

It's like a work-around, and quite a brilliant work-around for seeking greater justice and greater fairness in this matter. I think it will affect a lot of lives. And I'm very happy to have seen it.

And about the Fed's position on state laws about marijuana?

I was made happiest by the decision of the administration not to obstruct the decision by Colorado and Washington to legalized marijuana across the board. That is a very important move by this administration that I think sends a signal to other states that says, "Yes, since we know that a majority of voters want us to legalize, we now on top of that know that the executive branch does not intend to make a Federal-versus-State-rights issue out of it." I can, as a state politician, now with greater comfort, move matters the way my voters would like to vote. So, it's probably quite an invitation to other states to legalize.

And why does that matter? It doesn't matter so that snowboarding stoners in Colorado can enjoy themselves with greater freedom from the police. No. You have to understand that of all the arrests for drug crimes in this country, the statistics on this are insane. Marijuana represents the vast majority of what people are arrested for, and within marijuana you're talking about 90% of the time it's for possession. So, over half the arrests for drugs in this country come from marijuana, and then about 90% of the cases, it's only for possession. Well, a change like this can be huge. It can be huge for all concerned because for so many young people, particularly poor people or minority people targeted by the war on drugs, their first brush with these kinds of severe and outlandish laws comes very often through involvement with marijuana.

They used to say that marijuana was a gateway drug, which meant it was a warning. If you take marijuana on a Monday, by Friday you'll be injecting rat poison into your vein. It became a crazy gateway into harder drugs. This was never demonstrated by science or medicine. It was just well-crafted publicity, frankly.

At the same time it is worth saying that marijuana is a gateway drug for sure into the criminal justice system because it usually is the way that most people get their first brush with the law and, therefore, we see these vast numbers of people for whom marijuana was a real problem for them with criminal justice. And that will be now measurably reduced.

Are there many big public companies that are going to feel the effects of any losses in this battle?

The way that the war on drugs functions is not so simple like there's this big corporation. And I know there's the Corrections Corporation of America (NYSE:CXW), there's GEO Group (NYSE:GEO). There are other big prison and corrections institutions that feel the sting of any reduction very closely. They know that their livelihood relies upon the ongoing and increased incarceration of human beings in this country, to put it horribly. That's what they do for a living.

But I will say that the prison industrial complex in America at large is much more complicated than just those large companies or large private companies. It is a whole galaxy of individual people, small institutions, small companies, big companies, Congresspeople, their staffers, the criminal justice enterprise, cops, wardens, corrections people. There is a vast, vast community in this country who rely upon that same system that I just described as those major corporations. And all of them aren't made up of people doing something sinister. Very often being a prison guard is one of the only options a person has. There's not too many jobs out there. One in eight public officials are employed -- one in eight state officials in America are employed by the corrections sector. So, you now have a job which is a relatively standard choice for a lot of people. They're not evil people. They're just choosing to do something with their lives that, frankly, they're not very proud to describe to their kids. And so I think a lot of those people are just, in many ways, victims themselves of the way our unfair and unjust economy that has so much wealth concentrated in the hands of the rich.

By the way, it makes it hard to reform and it makes the job of reforming it one that takes great compassion. You can't talk to a struggling prison guard who himself is on food stamps and act like he's a rich prison industrialist getting away with murder, clinging to a job he barely has. He's got friends in the prison. He's got family members in the prison. He's a stone's throw from a prisoner himself, in terms of the way the war on drugs and our criminal justice system conducts such an outright campaign against poor people. Most Americans are targeted in one way or another, whether they've gotten in jail yet or not. They're certainly on its list.

When I talk to prison guards, I always say, "Look, I want much less incarceration in this country. That doesn't mean I want to put you out of a job. I'd like to move you to a related field, i.e., the field of public health. If you've been a prison guard for 20 years, you're very experienced in the very difficult task of separating a person from their addiction and helping them get past that. And you've done it with shackles and bars and whatever. Well, what if I gave you just a handful of a new amount of training and let you be able to do it with a health-care approach?"

Where do you see things going? Since the movie has come out and you've been doing some traveling and giving public talks, do you feel like things have changed? Are there things that you would add to the movie?

I think the public is increasingly aware that this is an embarrassment and a terrible waste of human resources and money in America. I think the public gets it, and the public is way out ahead of the policymakers. Why? Because the policymakers are corruptly benefiting from it.

I think they will soon [wake up] because ultimately policymakers know one thing, which is they can have all the money in the world, they can get all the support in this companies, but if they don't have the voters, they will actually lose.

So I think they need to be getting that message, which means those who take on this cause, and those who understand how significant it is as a human rights issue in America, can take nothing for granted. We need a public-health approach, a mental-health approach to addiction as this country generally needs better health care and, of course, needs better mental-health solutions.

What we need is a mental health system in this country that knows how to spot addiction and knows how to spot mental disturbance much earlier. And if we had that we'd have a far healthier society. We'd have healthier schools, towns, and the rest, and we wouldn't be putting so many nonviolent people behind bars in a way that is immoral and puts us on the wrong side of history.
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