As the credits rolled at the end of Eugene Jarecki’s powerful documentary, The House I Live In, we hear Frank Sinatra singing the title song, urging for tolerance in the mid-1940’s. Nearly 70 years later, with his documentary detailing the profound impact the war on drugs has had on minority communities, Jarecki is doing the same.
Jarecki explains the documentary began in order to chronicle the impact of drugs on the life of Jarecki’s childhood nanny, coincidentally named Nannie Jeter. Through interviews with Jeter and Jarecki’s own recollections, we learn about Nannie’s journey from the South to Connecticut, her struggle to find work in the late sixties, and the sacrifices she made in order to raise her own children while, simultaneously, raising someone else’s. Like so many low-income Americans, of whom African Americans and other minorities are disproportionately represented, Nannie details how drugs penetrated her family, eventually taking the lives of her son and other family members.
Nannie’s personal story is supplemented by the stories of others also touched by the war on drugs: a prison guard in rural Oklahoma, patrolmen in Providence, Rhode Island and Magdalena County, New Mexico, a young women struggling for survival in public housing in New York City, and multiple men incarcerated for low-level drug offenses. Each story provides a different perspective, which allows the viewer a more complete understanding of what the war on drugs really, truly looks like.
From its first days under the Nixon administration to Reagan’s “Just Say No Campaign” and through the current crisis with the emergence of methamphetamines, we are shown the not only how much damage the war on drugs has caused, but how much it has failed. Rates of drug use have remained constant throughout the recent decades despite the billions of dollars invested. In fact, as reported by the Drug Policy Alliance, it is estimated that 500,000 people are incarcerated today for drug offenses, an 1100% increase from 1980. These arrests and incarcerations “can result in the loss of employment, property, public housing, food stamp eligibility, financial aid for college, and the right to vote”, further marginalizing and already vulnerable population and preventing them from reaching their full potential.
Eugene Jarecki’s position is clear: the war on drugs is a failure and our effort to punish and imprison drug users is not the answer. Rather than incarceration, we must look at the real causes of drug use and create a society that addresses these problems. In viewing The House I Live In, you can’t help but wonder what state the country would be in, had the government invested equally in education, affordable housing, and treatment for mental health and drug abuse.
by Jenna Engebretson