"A tipping point is happening"

Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki discusses Obama's disappointing record on drugs and why he thinks true change may be near

Published July 14, 2012 1:00PM (EDT)

Documentary filmaker Eugene Jarecki took on the military-industrial complex in his award-winning 2006 film "Why We Fight," and now he turns his attention to a war closer to home -- the drug war. His new film, "The House I Live In," which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year, takes a critical look at the criminal justice that has ensnared millions of Americans in order to enforce the prohibition on drugs. Jarecki spoke with Salon about Obama's disappointing record on drugs, about one of the largest voting blocs no one has heard of and about why he thinks we're a approaching a "tipping point" in the drug war.

The drug war has never quite broken through as a major political issue. What attracted you to this issue, and why should people care now?

The election. Not just the presidential, but at the legislative level and at the local level across the country. Isn’t an election ultimately about the question that we’ve been working out for several years now -- what kind of a country are we intending to be? Ever since World War II that's been a question. We became an enormous world power, and we’ve handled that power questionably, and ultimately, I would argue, to our own detriment. And certainly to the detriment of people who don’t benefit from the industrial system. And this [the drug war] might be one of the most pressing, and sort of inspiring, areas as a possibility for real reform. Whether we’re going to continue the kind of state-following and fear-mongering that we have had since the end of the Cold War, where we almost needed a new enemy, so into that pipeline we put the drug dealer and drug user.

Could we step back and say, there must be a better way for us to lead the world? Morally, spiritually and otherwise. We are now in many ways a laughing stock for the rest of the world due to the enormity of our prison population. We have outpaced every totalitarian country in the world. Not only proportionally, but in real numbers. China has five times the population, but it has a smaller prison population. So it seems to me that the moral bankruptcy of the war on drugs would be something that really should be a central topic of these upcoming elections.

Not to mention the economy, which should just be added motivation. It also turns out that you would save billions by conducting a system that injects some compassion and science, and [which] deals with drug addiction [as] ultimately what it is -- a health concern, not an opportunity for criminal justice expansion. So that’s something I’d love to see in November, and we’re working toward that in states across the country.

Part of the reason this has never become a top-tier political issue is because you don’t have a big, enfranchised voting bloc that is directly affected by the drug war. Is there an emerging voting bloc, as punishments are relaxed, medical marijuana becomes more prevalent and attitudes shift about recreational use (we have president who has admitted to using marijuana and cocaine)?

I think if you take the millions of Americans who take drugs, we would have a far greater constituency than one might imagine. So it would seem to me that one aspect would be, yes, medical marijuana. But also another aspect is reform that would touch a wider area where more Americans are affected, that would be very helpful for turning the page in what I think is already happening. And that’s a broad-based shift in understanding that we have been and continue to be far too draconian in our approach to what is ultimately non-violent activity. The majority of those put in jail for drugs are non-violent. And they are very often put in jail for sentences that rival those sentences we give for violent crime. And that makes no sense to anyone.

At the end of the day, that can change opinions because there is a growing constituency affected by this targeting of non-violent Americans. Because many of them find themselves in the crosshairs of that target. And so they should understand that their desire to non-violently put in their bodies what they see fit to put in their bodies is a right that I feel they should have, and it should be preserved. And targeting them is the elimination of that right and the intervention of the government between themselves and their body on non-violent terms. And that makes no sense to anyone.

The other side of this, of course, is poverty. The more America gets off course, the more everyone in the economy gets the squeeze. And not just in poor black or poor Hispanic areas. We have drug use, and drug law enforcement, escalating in poor white areas. The largest growing groups have been white meth users, Latinos and women. So as those growing constituencies find themselves targeted by law enforcement and minimum-sentencing laws, and find themselves facing harrowing prison sentences for nonviolent activity, they in turn become advocates for the reform of this system.

How would you grade the Obama administration’s handling of the drug war?

Obama has in many ways, in this area, struggled between a stated desire to reform the situation as he confronted it when he first came into office, and the realities on the ground in Washington. But I fear that, faced with that dilemma, he errs far too much to the side of caution. The caution that prevents one from speaking basic common sense. So while there has been rhetoric coming from the administration calling for meaningful reform, I think many of his supporters have become disillusioned by the way in which he, far too often, expresses to them the limits of the possible rather than expressing a vision of the moral imperative.

And so he finds himself, for example, appointing Gil Kerlikowske as his drug czar. He immediately came in and said things like, I don’t agree with words like ‘war on drugs,’ and I don’t think we should be conducting a violent drug war. And we applauded that. But that’s rhetoric, it hasn’t translated to meaningful changes in policy. If all you’re doing is conducting war by another name, then in many ways what you’re doing is hiding the war in friendlier language. And of course, this war on drugs has really always been not a war on drugs, but a war on people. Particularly the poor. But no one wants to call it a war on the poor. So you’re playing games with words.

Are you more optimistic about a second term, should Obama get one, as some people have reported we should be?

I hear promises that, in his second term, Obama will do this, that or the other thing. But in many ways, that second term, second-chance thinking is a dangerous game. The road to apathy is paved with that kind of illusion. So I believe in holding the Obama administration to strict account now, when people are being incarcerated in massive numbers everyday. So I do have hope for a second term, but I think one can continue to exert pressure until the second term. I’m hopeful, but I don’t want to be told to delay.

More and more states have medical marijuana laws, Colorado has a legalization ballot measure that has a decent chance of succeeding, other states have similar measures. Are we approaching a tipping point where reform becomes a safe issue for politicians to take up and policy changes start happening more quickly?

When Pat Robertson and Chris Christie are publicly speaking out and joining the ranks of everyone from Ron Paul to Russell Simmons -- how often do you see those guys working on the same thing? -- you are seeing a tipping point. This is a growing number of Americans beginning to realize that the war on drugs is a mistaken idea from the bat. More and more people understand that, and they see the goal of the war on drugs has not been achieved. Drugs are stronger today, more available today, cheaper today, and younger and younger people are using and selling them today, than ever before.

It’s been an abject failure. And who will defend it? It’s almost impossible to find anyone who doesn’t have a vested interest in it, and even they are hesitant to defend it in public. So yes, I believe a tipping point is happening, and I’m extremely excited this film can be a part of that. State by state, mayor by mayor, we’re seeing steps to reform.

By Alex Seitz-Wald

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2012 Elections Barack Obama Drugs War On Drugs