what’s the point of the “War on Drugs”?

I was recently recommended the following BBC documentary – it is perhaps the most dispassionate and comprehensive investigation into the war against drugs I have yet seen.

Storyville: The House I Live In

First broadcast on BBC Four at 10:00 — 11:45 pm on Monday, 14 January

Produced, Written and Directed by Eugene Jarecki

Edited by Paul Frost

Click here to watch on the BBC iplayer.

Available until Monday, 4 March 2013

America’s “War on Drugs” officially began with Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign and subsequent election, and although during his first term in office Nixon actually invested more government money on rehabilitation programmes than on law enforcement, when he began campaigning for re-election he was very much keener to play up the importance of what he called “total war on public enemy number one”. It was this ‘tough on drugs, tough on the causes of drugs’ strategy that enabled him to secure a landslide victory in 1972; a political success that paved the way for later presidents to follow Nixon’s example, further tightening up drug regulations and passing into law ever more draconian measures against “the drug menace”.

The results of this relentless “War on Drugs” that is now into its fifth decade is summed up by an early caption in the film: “Since 1971, the War on Drugs has cost over $1 trillion and resulted in more than 45 million arrests. During that time, illegal drug use has remained unaltered.”

Filmed in more than twenty states, Eugene Jarecki’s documentary “The House I Live In” retraces the history of America’s prohibition of narcotics and reveals how drug wars have actually long been used as a way of targetting the poor, and, most especially, immigrant populations – an early Californian ban on opium being an deliberate offensive against Chinese workers, the first laws banning cocaine aimed squarely at ‘the negroes’, and the more infamous scare over marijuana in the 1920s and 30s being an indirect attack on Mexican migrants.

While recognising the seriousness of drug abuse as a matter of public health, the film investigates the tragic errors and shortcomings that have instead treated it as a matter for law enforcement, and it makes an altogether compelling case that these drugs wars have always meant a kind of collective harassment. America’s latest and current “War on Drugs” serving merely to feed an already enormous and rapidly growing prison-corporate complex, with its victims drawn almost exclusively from the ranks of America’s lower classes: “With only 5% of the world’s population, the United States holds 25% of its prisoners. Over 500,000 are incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes.” [from another caption in the documentary]

There are interviews with those on both sides of the divide: from police and prison officers, to the dealer, to the grieving mother, to the senator, the inmate and the federal judge, and also including the considered thoughts of former police reporter David Simon, creator of the widely acclaimed TV series The Wire. The film concludes that not only has the “War on Drugs” been an out and out failure, destroying the lives of a great many entirely non-violent drug users whilst, by degrees, helping to ghettoise and demonise whole communities, but that at the same time it is increasing tension between those communities and the police, forcing those who often have little alternative into an escalating life of crime and, at the same time, diverting vital law enforcement resources away from the prosecution of more serious and violent offences.

David Simon sums the matter up most succinctly: “It’s absolutely true that drugs have destroyed lives. That heroin and cocaine, for example, do nothing to engender individual dignity. But while covering the drug war as a journalist for more than a decade I came to understand that what drugs haven’t destroyed, the war against them has.”

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Filed under analysis & opinion, did you see?, USA

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