How the War on Drugs Increases Drug Use and Destroys Communities

The House I Live In: The War on Drugs in the United States

Directed by Eugene Jerecki (2012)

Film Review

Last night Maori TV showed The House I Live In, which maintains the US War on Drugs is far more destructive than drugs themselves. Instead of reducing illicit drug use, the War on Drugs has vastly increased it – in part because it has shifted funding from treatment to enforcement.

The documentary traces how drugs enforcement has always been targeted, not against drugs, but against ethnic minorities (and removing them from the workforce). In the white community, drug addiction has always been viewed as a public health problem. Yet in the 19th century, the first opium laws were targeted against Chinese workers imported to work on the railroads; in the early 1900s cocaine enforcement was targeted against African Americans migrating from the South to northern cities; and in the 1920s and 1930s, the first marijuana laws were directed against Hispanics coming to the US seeking work.

Although the War on Drugs was initially launched to win votes for politicians (by promising to increase incarceration rates), there seem to be other factors that are perpetuating it. According to the filmmakers, the main three are mandatory minimum sentences (which force judges to hand out 20-30 year sentences for relatively minor nonviolent drug offenses, incentives that reward cops to pursue easy drug busts* rather than more dangerous crimes like murder and rape, and the job-creating potential of the profitable prison-industrial complex.

For me the most surprising part of the film concerned the increase in amphetamine-related arrests (occurring mainly in white men) since the 2008 global economic crash. After losing their jobs, many blue collar whites have turned to amphetamine manufacture and distribution to support their families. Thus a growing number of poor whites are facing the ridiculously long mandatory sentences African and Hispanic communities have been struggling with since the 1990s.

*These incentives also cause police to focus enforcement efforts on the ghetto. This results in much higher arrest rates from African Americans, even though they use illicit drugs at roughly the same rates as whites and other ethnicities.