An Honest Look at the War on Drugs Wins at Sundance

February 7, 2012 | by ,

Soros Justice Fellow Eugene Jarecki recently won the top documentary prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for his work The House I Live In. The film offers a range of perspectives on the failed war on drugs, fostering a more informed and honest dialogue about drug use, addiction, race, and incarceration in the United States.

To be clear, the film does not deny that drugs are potentially dangerous. Jarecki acknowledges that untreated drug addiction is a real problem that has damaged countless lives. But the film asks a simple question: Have the drug policies of the past 40 years helped? Jarecki concludes that the war on drugs has done as much or more damage to public safety, public health, and the economy than the combined and cumulative effects of drug use itself.

And now, more than four decades after President Nixon declared a war on drugs, and an estimated $1 trillion later, drugs are reportedly cheaper and easier to get, and the vast American jail and prison populations are clearly unsustainable.

As a New Yorker, born and raised, I was initially skeptical of the arguments presented by the drug reform movement. When I was an elementary school student in Manhattan, I witnessed muggings in broad daylight, and stories about crime and violence were a natural part of life here. Through the 1990s and the turn of the century, I witnessed Times Square transform from a drug and crime haven into Disney World. At the time, it seemed that elected officials’ “tough on drugs, tough on crime” approach played an important role in the city’s growing prosperity.

However, as it turns out, although drug use hasn’t gone down in New York, incarceration has gone up. But only certain types of people are being incarcerated for drug offenses, namely men of color in economically depressed regions of the city. The House I Live In shows how this trend is repeated all across the United States.

And yet, despite increasing evidence that a war on drugs has not worked—and probably could never work without destroying every freedom that we value as Americans—no one in power seems willing to admit that this investment has been an ongoing mistake. Instead, we continue to answer drug use and addiction with punishment and practices that undermine our values as an open society.