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Who profits from the ‘war on drugs’?

Darren Edgar

December 6, 2012

The House I Live In, directed by Eugene Jarecki,
Reviewed by Darren Edgar
The “war on drugs” is a total failure. This is the argument put forward by the new documentary film The House I Live In, written and directed by Eugene Jarecki who previously made a documentary about the rise of the “military-industrial complex” after WWII titled Why We Fight.
The House I Live In offers a scathing critique of failed US drug policy. Through interviews with various policy experts and those involved at every level of the justice system, it’s made clear that the “war on drugs” was a flawed concept from the start: that it was unnecessary, not to mention ineffective in achieving even its stated aims, but also deeply racist.
The modern-day “war on drugs” began in 1971 when the administration of Richard Nixon first coined the phrase after cynically calculating that a tough on crime stance would help secure him the upcoming federal election. He claimed that drugs were America’s “number one enemy” even though it was estimated that only two per cent of the population actually used illicit drugs—this was a response to the growing epidemic of heroin use among US soldiers in Vietnam.
But the roots of the US “war on drugs” and its inherently racist prosecution goes back even further. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Chinese migrant workers in California were being scapegoated for “stealing” jobs from white workers and subsequently they were policed and criminalized for their perceived connection with the use of opium, which was inaccurately labeled a growing problem and feared would spread to the white upper classes (who were already using it). The same process replayed itself with the criminalization of cocaine, only this time it was black labourers migrating from the South to northern cities looking for work who were targets of racist legislation and increased policing. With the criminalization of heroin and marijuana, racist drug policies would be applied again and again to mostly black populations—although latin, hispanic and indigenous populations would increasingly be scapegoated as well—for fear of the spread of drug use to “unaffected” white populations.
However, it has been with the criminalization of crack cocaine and its users that the racist nature of these policies is most clearly laid bare. Since crack’s entrance into popular usage during the mid-1980s, primarily within impoverished inner-cities (i.e. black communities), it has been disproportionately criminalized to a huge degree.
Comprising the majority of the population, white people also make up the vast majority of illicit drug users in the US, including the majority of crack users and most powder cocaine users.
For decades, simple possession of crack cocaine carried a five-year minimum sentence while there was no such minimum for powder cocaine; possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine would receive the same minimum sentence as possession of just five grams of crack cocaine—a ratio of 100:1. But in 2010, US Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which removed the five-year minimum sentence for simple possession of crack and reduced the ratio from 18:1—a ratio which still has no basis in any but a racist logic. The fact is that a larger percentage of crack users compared with powder cocaine users are black and that black people are frequently stopped and searched by police—where many of these drug charges stem from—while white people do not have to face this kind of aggressive policing as part of their daily lives. And once found guilty of drug possession or trafficking, mandatory minimum sentencing forces judges to hand out equal sentences for all crimes in the same category, precluding them from exercising any judgment over the particulars of a case—stripping them of context and treating all “criminals” the same.
Class war
However, in recent years, the huge increase in methamphetamine use and subsequent increase in its criminalization—where the vast majority or producers, traffickers and users are white—has exposed the underlying connection between drug use and conviction and incarceration on drug charges: class.
It is predominantly poor people—whether inner-city blacks, rural whites or indigenous people living on reservations—who fall into problematic drug use in an attempt to escape their dismal lack of opportunities to make a better life for themselves and their families. Unlike wealthier or “recreational” drug users, it is these poor and working class people who can’t access treatment to overcome their addictions, who begin selling drugs in order to feed their addictions or provide an income for them and their families when job opportunities are non-existent and avenues for quality education have already been denied them. In effect, the “war on drugs” is a class war. Those who run afoul of the law but can afford quality legal representation will always be able to defend themselves in court against charges, receiving minimum sentences if any, or enter the best drug rehabilitation programs (again and again, if need be)—assuming they’d be charged at all—while those who are disproportionately targeted and criminalized by the justice system and cannot afford quality legal representation, if any at all, can only throw themselves upon the mercy of a system which shows absolutely none.
Prison-industrial complex
There is also lots of money to be made through the vast expansion of the justice system. New state-of-the-art prisons, many of which are privately operated for profit, are being built to house a ballooning prison population mostly comprised of non-violent offenders sentenced on drug charges, often relating to marijuana possession or distribution. Beside the lucrative construction and operation contracts for newly built or recently privatized prisons, there is also money to be made on the manufacture and sale of policing equipment—guns and artillery, tasers, uniforms, vehicles—as well as the products and services required of the prison population itself—food, clothing, healthcare. All of this goes to fattening the bottom lines of the huge corporations who win these contracts, while they either set-up shop in, or threaten to leave, towns which are desperate for any new jobs at all, allowing them to pay their employees poor wages and offer few benefits.
The increase in police officers, prison guards, lawyers and judges required to operate such an expanded justice system broadens the layer of people dependent on it for their livelihood, further solidifying its hold on people economically and enabling it to present itself as a benefactor of a more humane society. It creates the material conditions to perpetuate itself and its ideology, allowing the justice system to do what it has always done: represent the interests of the ruling class at the expense of the working class. But even still, there are some within this system who recognize how utterly broken it is and they provide much of the interview footage for The House I Live In.
In the film, it is the interviews with those personally affected by the “war on drugs” where the film resonates most powerfully. Whether it’s interviews with young black men facing decades-long prison sentences, loved ones being left behind (often by the family’s primary bread-winner), parents mourning the loss of their children to drug addiction, HIV/AIDS or prison sentences, or fathers regretting the cycle of poverty and drugs which finds their sons facing lengthy and life-destroying jail terms, one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the heartbreaking stories of human lives wasted—by poverty, drug abuse and a wholly unjust system which perpetuates them.
Unfortunately, instead of remaining unseen and unheard the director narrates and frames the film with his personal relationship with one of the protagonists in a way which seems opportunist or self-serving, and which ultimately detracts from the power of her story. This, combined with a near total lack of solutions being offered, is the only weakness of the film. Otherwise, it is successful in revealing the racist and class-based nature of the “war on drugs” and, implicitly, the entire justice system—exposing those who are perpetuating this war, despite in whose name it is claimed to be fought, and humanizing those against whom this war is waged.
The “war on drugs” has seen trillions of dollars spent only to have drugs as readily available as ever and rates of illicit drug use remain unchanged. But lest one be content with dismissing it as a product of a puritanical American culture or US-style reactionary politics, we only need to remember that the Canadian justice system also polices racialized communities disproportionately, incarcerates aboriginal people at an alarming rate, detains and criminalizes immigrants and refugees, and that the Harper government has its own plans for building massive new super-prisons to house anticipated increases of inmate populations as a result of sweeping new criminal laws and harsher sentences.
Knowing that the people being incarcerated and having their lives destroyed by draconian laws are our friends and family, our neighbours and co-workers, it is incumbent upon us to expose the hypocrisy of the Canadian state and its capitalist ruling class, and to fight for a truly just society—one in which indigenous people as well as settlers, new and old, are able to thrive. This is why we must fight for indigenous sovereignty and for Quebec’s self-determination, to defend immigrant and racialized communities against racist scapegoating, to assert a woman’s control over her own body and to defend the right to choose, to champion the great diversity in human sexuality and gender expression, to remove the impediments to full participation in society for the aged and disabled. And we must do all this while simultaneously fighting for workers’ rights and good, green jobs that won’t devastate the planet. Only through these united struggles will we have the ability to overthrow this rotten capitalist system once and for all.

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