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America’s Dubious War on Drugs: Pot Busts and Eugene Jarecki’s Sundance Winner “The House I Live In”

America's Dubious War on Drugs: Pot Busts and Eugene Jarecki's Sundance Winner "The House I Live In"

Yesterday, news broke that New York City police had arrested more than 50,000 people on low-level marijuana charges last year despite being told dubious tactics–such as “stop-and-frisks”–should not be used. According to reports, marijuana-possession arrests account for about 1 in every 7 cases in the city’s courts, and not surprisingly, the vast majority of those stopped are black or Hispanic (about 87% vs. only 10% white, according to reports, despite the fact that “young whites use marijuana at higher rates than young blacks and Latinos,” according to sociologist Dr. Harry Levine, who issued a statement. If you saw Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary “The House I Live In,” which continues to be a talking point for me with family and friends, this latest data continues to prove several of the film’s theses:

That the War on Drugs isn’t working; that it’s racist; that it’s clogging our jail system and providing fodder for the prison-industrial complex; and that police heavily favor pursuing lots of small-time easily prosecutable possession cases than going after big-time dealers, because it makes their arrest records look more impressive.

Here’s more of my thoughts on the film, which won Sundance’s Best Documentary prize, from my review in Screen:

“Early sequences make a strong case for the unethical nature of harsh mandatory sentencing guidelines, for example, and the way that law enforcement officials are given incentives to catch lots of low-level non-violent drug offenders rather single major suppliers or big-time dealers. The film also attacks the rise of the prison-industrial complex, which continues to create more prisons, and in the eyes of one observer, if a new prison is built, local officials need to find people “to fill the beds.”

Another of the film’s strongest arguments deals with the disparity between court sentences for powder cocaine (seen as a white person’s drug) and crack cocaine, where the latter was long judged 100 times more severe. (In 2010, the government dropped the ratio from 100:1 to 18:1.)

Jarecki finds an unlikely chorus of voices critical of current drug policies, from a “Law & Order” Corrections Officer, who believes that drug-related criminals are  “paying for our fear instead of for the crime” to Abraham Lincoln historian Richard Lawrence Miller, who really kicks the film’s argument into high gear. Miller exposes an eye-opening history of using drug policies to oppress minority populations in America, whether the way opium was criminalised to get rid of the Chinese in California, or the way cocaine and hemp were made illegal at other moments to vilify blacks and Mexicans, respectively.”

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