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‘The House I Live In’ presents sobering look at ‘war on drugs’

I’ve heard that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. By that standard, the U.S. “war on drugs” seems crazy indeed in “The House I Live In.”

Writer-director Eugene Jarecki introduces statistics early in his documentary: In the 41 years since President Nixon declared illegal drugs “public enemy No. 1,” the government has spent $1 trillion and made 45 million arrests – but the amount of illegal drug use hasn’t changed.

Though the United States has 5 percent of Earth’s population, we have 23 percent of its prisoners – including half a million jailed for nonviolent drug offenses. That alone ought to make us wonder.

Jarecki takes a similar approach to the one he used in “Why We Fight,” a superb documentary about the pervasive influence of the U.S. military-industrial complex: He studies a cumbersome (and to his mind, hurtful) organization that most of us have gotten used to and never contemplate, and he asks why we tolerate the harm it does.

But as the title suggests, this time he’s made the question personal, too: Nannie Jeter, a beloved housekeeper in the upper-middle-class home where Jarecki was a boy, lost her own son to heroin. Jarecki takes the title from a famous song about accepting your neighbors, which Paul Robeson sings over the end credits. But he’s also saying his own home was touched by drugs.

On a broad canvas, the film makes a compelling case. Jarecki gets on-camera remarks by judges from the left and right, longtime lawmen who love their jobs, an articulate Oklahoma prison guard, attorneys and prisoners and even a drug dealer in New York. All of them argue that the system is not only broken but self-perpetuating.

Politicians get re-elected by declaring themselves “tough on drugs,” and none wishes to consider lowering penalties for even minor possession. Law officers make dozens of drug arrests in the time needed to finish a rape or murder case, so they’re likelier to be noticed for promotion. People who build and staff prisons provide employment during a recession, so letting nonviolent drug offenders out could cost jobs.

David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun crime reporter who created HBO’s “The Wire,” puts forward the theory many of us will find hardest to accept: Jailing minor drug offenders represents a kind of class warfare, whether against Latinos (marijuana), blacks (crack) or whites (crystal methamphetamine).

To my mind, Jarecki doesn’t adequately address the responsibility of the “victims” for their own demise. Yet he does provide evidence that made me ponder: For a while, the penalty for possessing one-sixth of an ounce of crack – which black people tend to use – was the same as possessing 1.1 pounds of powdered cocaine, rich whites’ more frequent drug of choice.

The film slows down when Jarecki concentrates on Jeter. He seems to feel guilty that his parents offered to double her salary to move with them from Connecticut to New York; she took the job, apparently leaving her son inadequately cared for (this isn’t clear), and he took drugs.

Jarecki doesn’t make a case that any system failed this man, or that he was locked institutionally into a deadly cycle where drugs offered the only apparent way out of misery or unemployment. But he makes that case throughout the film in other ways, with depressingly credible results.


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