The drug war: a holocaust in slow motion

I’ve been wanting to watch the documentary “The House I Live In,” which is about the war on drugs, since I first saw the trailer for it a few weeks ago.

I finally got around to watching it last night, and it’s every bit as good as the trailer makes it look. Even though I already had some knowledge of the war on drugs, the movie gives a lot of history and context to the issue and I learned quite a bit.

Here are some of the things I found most interesting:

  • Since 1971, the war on drugs has cost $1 trillion and resulted in 45 million arrests. However, during that time, illegal drug use has remained unchanged.
  • The war on drugs tries to deal with a health problem as if it were a legal problem. Addiction is a side effect of human unhappiness and human suffering. The real question is not why the addiction, but why the pain?
  • Drug laws often carry mandatory minimum sentences, below which a judge can’t sentence a defendant, regardless of circumstances.
  • Over 500,000 (out of the about 2 million people incarcerated in the U.S.) are imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses.
  • The term “war on drugs” was coined by President Richard Nixon in 1971. However, under Nixon, two-thirds of the budget for waging this war went to drug treatment. This is considered to be highly progressive compared to what followed in the Reagan administration, which popularized and had a much harsher stance on the war. (Ironically, when Reagan amped up the drug war in the 1980s, drug use was actually on the decline.)
  • There are financial incentives that are built into the system in such a way that police departments have a monetary interests in making drug arrests, as opposed to solving murders, robberies and rapes.
  • The penalty for crack cocaine was made 100 times more punitive than for powder cocaine. This means that a crack defendant with 5 grams is treated the same as a powder defendant with 500 grams. (In 2012 President Obama signed a law reducing the disparity to 18:1.)
  • Only 13 percent of crack users are black, but 90 percent of federal inmates serving time for crack offenses are black.

Historians have actually been able to go back and see how, even at the onset, anti-drug laws have been associated with race. Opium, cocaine and heroin were all drugs that were accepted and frequently used by middle-class whites in the 1800s. However, during the California Gold Rush, the state outlawed opium, when Chinese immigrants (who were commonly associated with opium use) were seen as a threat to white men’s jobs. These laws continued after the Civil War with cocaine (which was becoming associated with African Americans), and later marijuana (associated with Mexicans). With the introduction of crack in the 1980s and methamphetamine in the 1990s these laws shifted somewhat to affect poor, inner-city people, regardless of color.

The drug war, on almost every level, has been a failure. So why is it persisting? It’s persisting because of the financial interests that private prisons, police departments, taser gun manufacturers, health care providers, and numerous others, have in keeping people in prisons.

One of the most important things to take away from this movie, I think,  is that the drug war is not about drugs. It is an issue that is rooted in 100 years of history, economic policy, social policy and misunderstanding, and the most visible aspect of it — people out there using on the streets — is not the problem. It is a manifestation of the problem.

For more information, and to find out where you can watch the movie, visit http://www.thehouseilivein.org.

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