Around this time of year, I find myself struggling to reconcile its warmth and festivity with the weight of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn. The senselessness and scope of the horror seem to overshadow all other thoughts, demanding that we as Americans take a moral inventory of who we are as a nation and what we want to be going forward.
Before the day turned so horrifically dark, I had actually awoken to good news. President Obama had publicly announced that he does not intend to assert federal power to prevent Colorado and Washington from implementing their election-day decision to legalize marijuana.Though this may seem insignificant in light of later events, it was of special importance to me, because I’ve spent the last several years making a documentary about the severity of America’s drug laws and their devastating impact on poor and minority communities. Legalization in those states means fewer nonviolent people will go to jail, the country will have a chance to see the benefits of a “tax and regulate” approach to drugs, and law enforcement will be freer to focus their attention on actual threats to public safety.
My happiness at this development was eclipsed by the heartbreaking events of the day, but in some way the national soul-searching that Newtown demands is not unrelated to a long overdue reexamination of the drug war and the brutality it has unleashed on families, children and communities across this country. Unfortunately, both of these areas of concern are underscored by a common moral quandary: how did a nation founded in enlightenment principles of decency, human dignity and kindness become a staging ground for so much that is brutal, insensitive and demonstrative of man’s inhumanity to man.
The title of my film, “The House I Live In,” is borrowed from a 1940s ballad that famously asks “What is America to Me?” As I traveled to more than 25 states documenting the lives of those touched by the drug war – from the dealer to the grieving mother, the narcotics officer to the congressman, the inmate to the federal judge – I grappled with how the world’s beacon of freedom became its leading jailer, with 2.3 million people behind bars, more than 500,000 for nonviolent drug offenses.
Taken together, the testimony of those I met filled me with both pain and hope. Pain because the war on drugs has proven to be an unmitigated disaster, failing in every way to address the scourge of drug abuse while inflicting immeasurable damage both on those targeted by drug laws and on the hopes and beliefs of those who enforce them.
But there was hope, too, because in so many people I met, I found great majesty – the capacity to forgive, to search within oneself, to seek a higher purpose and to look for a better way. At its core, the drug war is built on a moral assumption that substance abuse is a vice worth punishing. Reasonable people can debate this, but from scores of interviews I’ve conducted with criminal justice and medical professionals, I can report that the approach America has taken to our drug problem is increasingly seen as morally questionable and more destructive to society than the drugs ever were.
Inspiring further hope, I have been invited to show my film to audiences of the faithful in churches and synagogues around the country. Through these experiences, I have witnessed that a growing segment of the faith-based community is beginning to reexamine our draconian drug policies. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is currently at work on a criminal justice statement, joining other denominations in questioning the war on drugs. As Judith Roberts, director for ELCA’s Racial Justice Ministries, reports, “many of our congregations are creating awareness of the racial disparities that exist within the criminal justice system… There is a growing ecumenical movement focused on reducing mass incarceration. The United Methodist Church has taken serious action to divest from private prisons. The National Council of Churches is also considering taking on mass incarceration as a major issue in 2013.” Meanwhile, the film is proving useful as a tool for congregations to push towards change. Iva Carruthers, general secretary of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, says that they “have used the film all over the country to awaken the moral consciousness of America and galvanize the faith community.”
All of these steps are encouraging and signal a broader national reconsideration of America’s drug war. In a smaller development that gives me great personal pride, I’ve been invited to show my film in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Jan. 12 and at Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 19. These invitations, a product of the growing movement of congregations nationwide, is inspiring for what it says about the willingness of America’s faithful to reconsider the moral priorities of the drug war and, more broadly, to lead the way down a path towards a more compassionate and decent society.
Eugene Jarecki is a director, writer and producer whose works include “Freakonomics” and “Why We Fight.” His latest film, “The House I Live In,” features the stories of individuals at all levels of the war on drugs in the United States.