Eugene Jarecki: ‘A jailer is as victimized by the drug war as the person he is jailing.’

January 19, 2013

Eugene Jarecki is a documentary maker whose previous works include "The Trials of Henry Kissinger" and "Why We Fight." His most recent film is "The House I Live In," a blistering critique of the conduct of the drug war and especially of its impact on poor and minority communities. We spoke in Shiloh Baptist Church in Shaw, Washington, D.C., where today he is hosting a screening of his film at 1 p.m., which will be live-streamed to churches and other venues across the nation. A lightly edited transcript follows.

Dylan Matthews: What made you decide to make the promotional tour more like an advocacy campaign?

Eugene Jarecki: Far too often, due to the nature of the film business, movies that are serious about serious political and social issues just sort of get distributed to the usual suspects in art houses in major urban centers. There's nothing wrong with those people seeing movies of this kind. That's one of the great things about America, that there's always been a cross-section of the population of this kind that, even if it doesn't directly affect their pocketbook, are concerned about social and economic justice. So thank goodness for them.

But at the same time, if you let that be the sum total of your effort with a film, I think you preach to the choir in the most limited sense. And I need to preach to a much larger choir. I need to get my movie out to people across the spectrum in America, to whom a film like this matters most. So to put it most simply, you know, we committed ourselves from early on to really bring this film to audiences across the country that are too often overlooked by the distributors of mainstream documentaries, namely the people that the films are about: poor people in this country, people who have been targeted by these excessive drug laws.

I spoke this morning here in D.C. at Ballou High School and I asked for a show of hands of who in the audience had a loved one who is incarcerated. Every hand in the house went up. You know, those are the people who most need to see this film, because it most directly concerns them. And they need to make choices in their lives that are educated by the extraordinary stakes involved in this system.

We were not going to be content with bringing our film to those traditional art houses and having had that been it. And so, we started to show the film in churches and prisons and schools, in correctional institutions and also in civic institutions around the country to make sure that whether somebody is a drug dealer, or family member of a drug user or drug dealer, or whether they’re a jailer or a cop, or a law enforcement person, or a judge, they see it. All of them matter, because all of them are part of this American family of the drug war.

And all them are victimized by, a jailer is as victimized by, the drug war, I would argue, as much as the person he is jailing, because at the end of the day, his very soul has been eroded by what he does with his life. A police officer who tells me in the film, as so many did, from the front seat of their patrol car, that they’re not getting anywhere and that they come to doubt the work they do because the laws are not written in a way that's  making society better. Those are policemen who share that message with me. and I want to share that message with other policemen around the country.


Maurice Haltiwanger, who is featured in the film and was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for distributing crack cocaine. (Abramorama Entertainment)

DM: Does it concern you that so much of the political discussion around drugs focuses on marijuana, when, as your film does an excellent job of demonstrating, much of the mass incarceration problem and other social maladies of the drug war have been more bound up in hard drugs like meth and crack?

EJ: Well, I think there has been, there are two ways to look at marijuana legalization in America. One way is, you could say, "Well there is just kind of a movement where a lower-level drug that a lot of people use becomes legal to the benefit of those who want to use it recreationally, and yes, there is a medical component, too, but that’s too often exploited by those who are really just pursuing broad-based legalization, and the medical was a kind of almost a trick to get in there, and certainly people who need medical marijuana need it, but also too there are people who use the medical marijuana status that has been achieved for their recreational use.

There is a cynicism available, to look at that and think less therefore, for example, of the recent marijuana victories in Colorado and Washington. But to me, I don’t look at it that way. What do those victories actually represent? They represent a major step in beginning to restore some sanity to the U.S. war on drugs. Why? Because it will mean that far fewer people are stopped by police, frisked by police, and ultimately embroiled in this system of mass incarceration we have on the grounds of what always is so often an entry point into this, which is small-time, petty marijuana possession.

Marijuana has often been talked about as a gateway drug, historically. We are searching for marijuana and 90 percent of those people are young blacks and Latinos, and we then frisk 350,000 of those. Statistics like that create an epic flow of human beings into the system, whose lives are then damaged at a very young age, where for the rest of their lives they have to tick a box on employment applications that says they've been arrested or convicted of a crime. And that reduces their chances in life, increases their chances of ending up in an underground economy, like drug dealing. Increases their chances of dying a violent death in the drug trade.


Jarecki discusses the film on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" (Comedy Central)

DM: Let's talk about the broad-based overhaul you want to see. I think people often have an impression that opponents of the drug war want to see heroin on CVS shelves. But that's obviously not what we're talking about.

EJ: Sure. I think it's a matter of language. In this country, we use, I think incorrectly, the term legalization to talk about what should happen with drugs. I think legalization is a very dangerous word, and I think it scares a lot of people who would support the idea of a much more sane approach to drug addiction in America. They suddenly have a picture of  legalization being like "Night of the Living Dead," with zombies on every corner dealing drugs to your child. That is not anything that any sensible person would want to pursue.

I think the British have it right in what they pursue, which is called "tax and regulate." They seek to make drugs a controlled substance that the government still has a role in managing. They want to see massively enhanced systems of treatment for those addicted. They want to see the price drop precipitously because it is no longer an illegal substance, it's a controlled substance. So basically what tax and regulate means is, treat the drugs that are on the schedule of illegal substances in this country the way you treat alcohol.

And the crazy thing is, alcohol is a far more destructive drug to personal health, public health and public safety, than any of the drugs we are talking about on the schedule of illegal substances, and yet we treat them far more severely than the more dangerous drug, alcohol. And so it's clearly arbitrary on its face, and so you have to ask yourself: Why did something that defied common sense continue? And that's where you get into the vested interests, the corrupt interests that are perpetuating this wrong-headed approach to drug abuse in this country.


David Simon, creator of "The Wire" and "Treme", appears in the film frequently. (Abramorama Entertainment)

DM: Mark Kleiman, the criminologist at UCLA, saw the film and said that he thought all the points were good, but that he thought that you exaggerated the extent to which the mass incarceration problem is about drugs. What would you say to that?

EJ: Well, I don't disagree. We have seen a 700 percent increase in our prison population since the declaration of the war on drugs in 1971. All things are related. Every little thing you do affects other things. So my battle is to fight against what this country is doing to the nonviolent in the name of drug laws. And so the way we have also made our system far more severe -- that we now treat young people as adults; that we give longer and longer sentences for non-drug related offenses -- all of that is also true.

But that I am trying to deal with the drug aspect of things in no way should suggest that I have a blind spot about the larger misguidedness of the system. We are surely as wrong-headed in our dealing with a whole range of "crimes" in America as we are in the way we handle the drug crimes. But drug crimes is the area which I have studied, and I have watched it ravage particularly communities of color in America, and it is in the name of those drug laws, that thin cloak that we have wrapped around what is really a campaign of racial and ultimately social and class control.

You're talking about a prison population of 2.3 million, [of whom] about a quarter are in for nonviolent drug offenses. That's a huge portion already. If you could begin to address that, then you could also turn your attention to those we have grotesquely and excessively incarcerated for their crimes that are not of a drug-related nature.

Kevin Ott, featured in the film, is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for possessing three ounces of meth. (Abramorama Entertainment)
Kevin Ott, featured in the film, is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for possessing three ounces of meth. (Abramorama Entertainment)

DM: Do you think it's more difficult for Obama to talk about this, as someone who has to be conscious of the risk of racial backlash? And as someone who's admitted to using drugs in his youth?

EJ: I don't care. He's the president. It's not a popularity contest. He's not running from what was written in his high school yearbook. Please. We've got 2.3 million people behind bars in this country. Whether he'd be perceived as a black president, reexamining a system that is specially injurious to black people, or whether he would be seen as somebody who, like most other Americans at one point or another, has experimented with a drug -- that does not make him unique, and it should not act as any kind of obstacle to the imperative at this moment for him to lead.

It doesn't matter what elements of his background could be used by his adversaries as a critique. His adversaries have demonstrated that they have no legitimacy or moral authority. They will attack him no matter what he does, because they have discovered that for the lack of any ideas themselves that would move the world forward, they will pursue political profit by simply being adversarial.

So if we know that that's what they're going to do, the president might as well simply pursue that which would shine most brilliantly in his legacy. And that would be to make this country a better place, a greater leader of moral values in the world, and a greater example of compassion towards its own people and others.

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