I got hold of Eugene Jarecki, an acclaimed activist and documentary filmmaker, during a screening of his newest project, The House I Live In, at the JFK Jr. Forum. Alive with enthusiasm about correcting the problems of drug prohibition, he scoffed at time limits and spoke at length with us about the war he’s waging against the War on Drugs.
What set apart the experience of making a documentary about the War on Drugs from Why We Fight, or your other past works?
This film is different from other films I’ve made, because I have a strong personal connection to the subject matter through friends and extended family that I have whose lives have been very deeply touched by the War on Drugs. But there’s no question that I’ve made several films that take on large, systemic crises in America—conditions of injustice and exploitation and corruption, which have been the focus of my work—and the challenge here is a balancing act between that which is emotional and heart-wrenching and personal for me to think about, and that which is more analytical and political-philosophical in nature. And both need to be grappled with by the public, because if you make a documentary about a subject like this that simply lives in statistics and in political analysis or economic analysis, you make something which is mind-numbingly insensitive to the human content of the events. People’s eyes will glaze over and they’ll find it wonkish and detached. If you make something that’s only driven by the stories of those caught up in the drug war, you may deeply move people, but they won’t know about what—they won’t understand the roots of the problem that’s indicated by the unfolding of the human stories.
So the balancing act becomes one between the heart and the mind, between storytelling and factual delivery—and in the end you’re talking about something like infotainment, to give it a crass term of art—you’re trying to keep people engaged on a Friday night when they have other movie choices they could make, but you’re also trying to deliver important stuff for them to think about so that society can be made better. It’s in the weaving of those elements that the challenge of the movie lies.
Given that in today’s political discourse, a lot of the loudest criticisms of the War on Drugs are libertarian and rights-based, do you think that sort of misses the point of the issue and the various impacts it has on society?
When you have a crisis as profound as the human rights crisis of the War on Drugs in America, you don’t have the luxury to reject any sources of concern, so the interest of the libertarian right in what may seem like the violation of fiscal conservatism that lies with the War on Drugs—the interest of the Republican right, the libertarian right, have in the runaway economic waste of the War on Drugs—is a welcome component to any discussion in which the left figures to contribute concerns about the humanistic issues at stake.
So now what you have, thankfully, is now a new and more volatile moment in the drug war—the most volatile moment we’ve had—where the concerns about the right about fiscal conservatism and the concerns of the left about a more perfect kind of justice and the inhumanity of the system combine to create an unprecedented force for reform. When the libertarian right was whiling away in a wilderness of concern about runaway expenditure without being heard, and the left was talking about injustice in black America without being heard, they now hear each other and find common cause in a way that’s absolutely indispensable—because the center, as dominated by centrist Republicans and centrist Democrats, are profiteers in that system. They have a tin ear to anything but the most threatening chorus of concern.
And so the unification of the libertarian right and the progressive left on such issues of fiscal conservatism and justice may prove to be a tipping point force for getting those people to understand that there’s a cost to doing business as they’ve been doing it—an electoral cost, especially within the Republican Party. It’s one of those issues that’s fractured the Republican Party. Within Democratic circles, I’ve seen that Senator Feinstein of California, for example, is finding herself more and more isolated along the lines, when she sees people in judiciary activities in the Senate, like Orrin Hatch—who was once upon a time a strong bedfellow of hers in fighting for tougher drug laws—you even find that people like Orrin Hatch are softening quite a lot. You find a person like Senator Feinstein finding herself more and more alone, and no politician wants that. I think this is a welcome moment. I hear the libertarian concerns about the money, and I agree: what a ridiculous way of spending public funds, digging a hole in the ground and throwing into it your money and your people.
What do you think would be a real indicator that we’re at a tipping point in terms of ending the War on Drugs, in terms of legislation or popular activism?
There’s this old adage that came out of the South African revolution that says that all revolutions are impossible until they happen. And then everyone says, “Oh, it was inevitable.” You don’t know how to read the tea leaves when an Arab Spring is about to happen; nobody knew that Occupy was going to happen, or that the original Tea Party was about to happen. Things crop up and then suddenly feel inevitable when they didn’t beforehand, so I don’t know that we’ll know what the leading indicators will look like. I can tell you that certain key events in the last year speak volumes to me as serious indicators of the possibility of reform, but only if handling and perceived properly. So, Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana in the past year—not just medical marijuana, a major leap: they legalized marijuana, period. That’s a major step, because it doesn’t have that kind of nuanced caveat of the medical. It’s more of an endorsement of the notion that some form of drug legalization is more in the public interest than the reverse, more draconian sentencing for drugs than any other Western nation.
We also saw on election day a victory not about drugs specifically, but about the public view of the excessive incarceration of the nonviolent, which has become an epidemic in America. We incarcerate the nonviolent so excessively that it has produced the better part of our 700% increase in prison population since 1971. We can all agree that incarcerating nonviolent people for sentences that rival or outstrip the violent violates common sense. Since that is my discourse, what happened in California is extremely important for what I consider to be the immediate and winnable fight—which is, Californians voted overwhelmingly for Proposition 36, which means that Californians saw that Californian’s three strikes law was excessive, and excessively targeted the nonviolent with life sentences. Prior to election day, you would go to jail for life for your third strike, even if that strike were nonviolent or petty—like stealing a slice of pizza, in one case. Stealing tube socks, in another case. Denture cream, in another case. These cases are now famous, and they became famous enough because of the shame of it and the gross injustice of it, because down the hall from them are murderers who get out with a shorter sentence—that Californians put forward the idea that going to jail for life requires a serious or violent offense.
That’s an important step because it speaks to a public appetite for greater sanity in sentencing. It also speaks to a specific commentary on our runaway sentencing of our nonviolent. But third of all, for people who don’t care about injustice, but care about watching their dollars, it’s going to save the state of California $100 million minimum to make that decision, and other states hemorrhaging money from their budgets are going to be keen to hear that the California example can be applied in their state. You produce more perfect justice and you produce greater savings.
That marriage that we’ve seen happen on election day in three states between more sanity and more compassion and greater savings—the sum total of this is a picture which is encouraging to me, but only if handled correctly. Those three victories can work to the detriment of the drug war, if anyone takes excessive comfort from them that the war against the war has been won. These are just battles in the war to end the drug war. They have to be seen that way; if they’re overinterpreted, we’ll drop our guard—because reform is by no means on its way. Those were hard-won victories that took a tremendous amount of time to achieve, and more of that needs to happen in more states. So people around the country need to take no comfort from that other than that public opinion in other states will be equally inclined toward greater sanity. Any other comfort, like that the system will reform of its own accord or that the ball is already rolling—would be very dangerous.
I heard you acknowledge [Kennedy School Professor] Stephen Walt in the audience; to what extent has discussing this issue with the foreign policy and international relations community shaped your approach to portraying the War on Drugs.
Broadly in the foreign policy community, there’s no way to talk about the American drug war in a vacuum from the international relations crises that our wrongheaded approach to this has produced. What is happening in Mexico is what it looks like when a country like America leaves its drug problem, which is a health problem, unaddressed, by treating it as a criminal problem—which it isn’t—we have left the addiction problem to fester, and so our addiction problem in America has reached the highest level on earth, with the highest level of demand, which is causing our neighbor’s state to become a virtually failed state. Servicing our demand and the market associated with it has created a massively violent industry in Mexico that is destroying that country. So nobody would want the adoption of tax and regulate policies in America and an end to criminalization more than any person who wants peaceful progress in Mexico—because it is our wrongheaded repeat of the crime of prohibition in this country that has caused this sort of gangsterism in the first place. We learned our lesson with Prohibition, and decided to repeat it all over again with drugs, and it makes no sense.
The American domestic War on Drugs is by its very nature an international relations issue. If we were to solve the domestic injustice of this and the incongruity of it, it would by accident solve one of the major security issues we have, which is the security issue that’s bleeding over the border right now. Extraordinarily, how often do you have a domestic policy issue that is inherently an international relations issue? Amazing.
What advice would you give to organizations and people on the activist scene—Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, LEAP, for example—what would you say is the next priority to be focused on?
Aggregate. Aggregate is the word. It means, don’t let your actions happen in the egotism of isolation. We’re doing that with our film. More than ever before, we’re playing well with others. Make sure that you aggregate yourselves with like-minded and not so like-minded allies in a struggle—which means if there are Students for a Sensible Drug Policy on campus, and they haven’t reached out to the libertarian right on campus, they ought to have yesterday. Go visit rightoncrime.org and find out where the interests of the right wing lie in reforming the criminal justice system, and what a breath of air that would be for the public here, about right-left collaborations on a social issue. The enchantment of that is almost like the great ending of a movie; both baseball teams get drunk together, and you kind of want that.
On one level, it’s to make sure that they unashamedly make alliances and work well with others, and aggregate personally, so they become more in numbers. So that’s one thing. Another is to aggregate information: make sure that if you have a struggle in Boston, looking at stop-and-frisk in Massachusetts, that you’re putting that in the context of stop-and-frisk in New York City, and even stop-and-frisk in Romania. You want to understand what the patterns of behavior are, and what have been the movements against them, around the world. So Students for a Sensible Drug Policy here need to aggregate information about drug policy in Portugal over the last ten years—it’s been a raving success. Americans hate hearing about how they do it better in other countries, but at least we haven’t been hearing about Portugal like we’ve been hearing about Norway for decades; so let’s introduce Portugal and its numbers into the dialogue as a case study about what we have to learn from it and what we don’t have to learn from it.
Lastly, I would say, ships don’t pass in the night. The worst thing you can have is the power to have made a strong point lost because you missed the opportunity to join others or with a key event that you didn’t know what was happening—or if there’s another actor doing what you’re doing, and if you had just known about him, it would have not been just two voices in the wilderness, but two people yelling on a street corner, and that’s a lot more than one. So aggregate is a key aspect of movements to make social change.
And finally, students on campuses more than anyone else in this country have the capacity to lead change on these issues, because they have the most time on their hands, and incredible resources at their disposal for research and dissemination. Prestigious universities like this one carry a special cache, where what they speak matters. You get out on the outside world when these years are over, and what you speak means nothing. I went to an Ivy League school, and it all mattered. And the next day, it didn’t matter at all and I was back to square one. And I remember thinking to myself, “God, I wish I’d used those years more effectively”—when I was not only an available soldier in an army for good, but a soldier in the army for good with a giant megaphone. Now, I’m no longer able to be a soldier in the army for good because I’m working 20 hours a day and I’ve got to build a megaphone of my own. So students here need to aggregate, and aggregating includes aggregating their power—making more of themselves by the incredible apparatus that’s available here that isn’t available later.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons