Interview: Eugene Jarecki (Director- ‘The House I Live In’)

Filmed in more than twenty states, The House I Live In‘ captures heart-wrenching stories from individuals at all levels of America’s War on Drugs. From the dealer to the grieving mother, the narcotics officer to the senator, the inmate to the federal judge, the film offers a penetrating look inside America’s longest war, offering a definitive portrait and revealing its profound human rights implications.

While recognizing the seriousness of drug abuse as a matter of public health, the film investigates the tragic errors and shortcomings that have meant it is more often treated as a matter for law enforcement, creating a vast machine that feeds largely on America’s poor, and especially on minority communities. Beyond simple misguided policy, ‘The House I Live In’ examines how political and economic corruption have fueled the war for forty years, despite persistent evidence of its moral, economic, and practical failures.

We talked with ‘The House I Live In‘ Director Eugene Jarecki about the racist roots of contemporary drug laws, a tax & regulate alternative to incarceration and the benefits of a rehabilitation based approach to the issue.  Though we are essentially a film-specfic site, sometimes a feature comes along on an issue so important, presented in a clear and concise fashion, we do ourselves and our community an indignity to not pay attention.  Film exists as a lens for an understanding of our own world, as well as its frequently employed transport to others.  ‘The House I Live In‘ is one of those films which cannot be ignored.

Buy or Rent ‘The House I Live In’ on iTunes from FilmBuffHERE

How long has the issue of the war on drugs been of personal interest to you?  Your team of producers includes some very familiar names.  How did this  common interest ultimately turn itself into ‘The House I Live In’?
I have worked with this team for several years on movies with issues of social justice, exploitation and human rights.  The focus shifted to the war on drugs because I wanted to make a movie depicting what blocks the progress (one would have anticipated) African -Americans should enjoy in the post civil rights era.  It seemed as though something was getting in the way of black progress, so the question in my mind was WHAT.  I asked the question because I grew up among African -American friends and families who, instead of benefiting from post civil rights era, were encountering obstacles that I was not.  As I kept asking this question, the answer always came down to the numbers of African -Americans in incarceration.  We have always heard about the harrowing statistics regarding black male incarceration rate compared to  black male university enrollment. Many feel that incarceration was the answer in itself, but to me, it was only the symptom of a problem.  The problem was why these people were being incarcerated in such mass numbers.  Had they suddenly and over night become such a criminal class? Was there something else at work?  The more I asked, the more it seemed that what had changed were not the people but the laws.  We had engaged in a massive escalation of national drug control policy when, in 1971, Nixon declared the war on drugs.  With the declaration of  “war on drugs,” the country’s history of having had drug laws, that very often were racist in nature, suddenly changed.  That brought with it a 700% increase in the prison population since 1971.  In many ways it became the answer that kept shouting out at me about what was prohibiting black progress

As I watched the film, I drew the conclusion that this issue was largely rooted in 19th century racism, which now seems to be perpetuated by 21st century capitalism.  Can we truly end mass incarceration with certain policy reform when our country’s free market system has created such lucrative peripheral industries out of incarceration?
I think the free market is a good idea.  What we experience in the United States, however, is not free market capitalism.  We live in a country where, across the areas of national concern, we see time and time again the presence of large, monopolistic, corporate actors who are enemies of the free market.  They tend to monopolize and derive exorbitant profits by running of the system by themselves at the expense of a biodiversity in real corporate activity or real human activity.  I would be cautious to convince oneself that what exists today is a “free market”.  It is a highly monopolized and highly oligarchic market, within which it is very hard to imagine reform.  The concentrated interests that hold so much power over the running of the show do not want it to change; they don’t want their roles to change.

The obstacle to reform is, what I call, democratic trust.  Yes, we have had racist drug laws dating back to the 1800s, used as methods of social control, i.e Chinese immigrants and opium laws, African- Americans and Cocaine laws, and then Mexican- Americans and the demonization of hemp and marijuana.  Chapter after chapter, we see drug laws being used to single out certain groups in society.  What happened with the declaration of the war on drugs was the following: the ad hoc history of racist activity suddenly became codified into having all of the perceived legitimacy and national trust of a war.   The “unleash the dogs of war” mentality brings all the painful side effects of a war.  We see this in Iraq and Afghanistan, which was a field day for corporate political corruption that circles around the world like buzzards.  The same is true here.  The drug war has been our longest war, going on 40 years and has created its own range of its own equivalents to Halliburton, Blackwater and Lockheed Martin.  What we have  are everything from major prison concerns like the Corrections Corporation of America all the way down to those who provide the food service, laundry service and the individual employees who unwittingly are just trying to do a job and trying to do it well.  They end up being agents of the perpetuation of a system that preys upon fellow human beings for its own profit.  This is a system that relies on the incarceration of your neighbor for money, whether it is the private prison system or the public.  The private prison is a more crass expression of this, but we would still have a human rights crisis of epic proportions in our criminal justice system even if we didn’t have the private prison system.

As we talk about incarceration, there still is a conversation to be had about rehabilitation.  In Switzerland and Portugal, both drug supply and treatment centers have been nationalized.  In those centers pure drugs are being supplied to users, as well as job training and drug education.  In virtually every one of these instances the percentage of drug users has decreased significantly.  Do you think an approach like this would work in a country as large as the United States, with its larger scope of population diversity and disbursement?
I don’t think  diversity and population are factors at all.  I think it is getting past all the bureaucratic hurdles of concentrated influence that lie in the way.  The example of Portugal being a success represents such an embarrassment to our extraordinarily primitive and draconian system of drug laws.  We have the toughest drug laws on Earth and the highest rates of demand.  We have fought this war for 40 years, spent a trillion dollars, made 45 million drug arrests and have nothing to show for it but a record of abject failure.  Drugs are cheaper and more available than ever before; drugs are used by younger and younger people and in the process we have done nothing except make ourselves the world’s leading jailer. This has had no impact on our levels of demand.  Our levels of demand are not only destroying us, as a public health issue, (ie. the public becomes more addicted yet less able to cope due to lack of sufficient treatment), but also become the engine destroying our neighboring country of Mexico.  The demand here is fueling the incredible industrialized crisis of thuggery that has gone on there.

The cost of this war is so astronomical in human terms, economic terms, and now in geopolitical terms, that change is inevitable.  No one can possibly defend it anymore.  It used to have defenders up and down the political class and, in an election period, we would have heard many mentions of crime, drugs and arrests.  What we now know is that this kind of rhetoric falls on deaf ears as it has only proven to be an incredibly costly disaster, only hurting neighbors or own family members.  It is not a popular pursuit and is an incredibly expensive one.  The question is what form will it take going forward?  It is in that context where we want to look at the most successful examples, and Portugal is one, where the decriminalization of drugs across the board has produced extraordinary results.  HIV rates have gone down; drug use among the young has gone down; violence rates have gone down; the workload of the criminal justice system has plummeted, representing huge savings.  A portion of those savings have been used to create one of the most robust treatment systems in the world and is having an extremely successful effect on the country.  It keeps the country more competitive and prosperous.  By having such a large incarcerated and post incarceration population, United States’ competitiveness in the world is diminished.  We reduce the purchasing power of our citizens, reduce our workforce and reduce our credit ratings.  So much is so wrong- headed about it that it actually hurts the business of American life.  What I would advocate is, rather than getting into a debate  with those using the frightening word of legalization, we do what we have already done with alcohol, tax and regulate.  We learned the lesson of prohibition that exploded in our face.  We take a controlled substance and the government profits from it, by regulating how it can be used. And, yes, if you commit a serious crime in the public space while under the influence, it will still be a prosecutable offense.  I would still argue that we need more alcohol treatment in this country, but there is no one who could possibly advocate any of the drugs on the schedule of illegal drugs, none of which have the history or proven track record of destruction to human health and public safety that alcohol does.  The same is true for nicotine. Naturally we should be switching the way  we deal with our drug problem to deal with it like we deal with alcohol.  With these substances, we need to move into even more of a treatment based system than we have for alcohol.  Instead of criminalizing a public health matter we deal with it responsibly, based on science, compassion, and wisdom.

Where does marijuana lie, specifically, in the treatment debate?  Under a tax and regulate system, would we approach marijuana treatment the same way we would heroin?
From a legal perspective, we would treat them the same, meaning that they will no longer be illegal and will become controlled substances.  Within the category of controlled substances, you would then treat them differently.  I use the word “treatment” advisably.  Your treatment, based on science and medicine, would be different; your approach, based on understanding that all of it is a matter of public health and none of it is a matter of criminality, would be the same.  For all substances that human beings take, the government feels there are health concerns surrounding them.  No one would argue that we don’t have a public health concern of drug abuse in this country.  Once you know what you are dealing with, and that all drugs fall into that, you just have to figure out what are the different ways to treat them.

You had mentioned that the demand for drugs in the United States is the highest in the world.  Aside from the socio-economic arguments which are largely rooted in low income or  lack of information situations, what does this multi-billion dollar demand say about us as a society?  Where does this craving for vice live in our collective consciousness?
The more I travel, and I have been to about 45 states working on the film, there is no question that Americans are hurting.  In many ways they are reeling from a collapse in understanding of who we are as a country and who they are as people within this country.  This is a very young empire that got very powerful very fast and a lot of young people who have achieved success end up in a lost state starting with their adolescence.  It takes them a long time to grow out of this hectic period and I think America is in such a late adolescence, coming to terms with some serious dysfunction.  The form that we see it take is in explosive violence; in a sense of hopelessness and despair among those who are marginalized by the system.  We see it in the escapism of our interests in culture.  So much of our interest is rooted in getting away, going to other planets.  Where we see it most of all, though, is in the level of self medication that Americans engage in.  Whether with drugs, shopping or gambling, Americans are addiction- prone because they are compensating for something that is lacking.  I think a hole has emerged at the center of the republic’s body.  I think people are trying to fill that hole with some manner of compensation or another.  For a country that was founded as a democracy and, over time, was given to a wide range of predatory forces of human greed, exploitation and unchecked cronyism, Americans are wondering what happened to the free market that they were promised.  They deal with this by self medicating, due to poverty or joblessness; a sense of collapsed standards that the world of journalism, in many ways, has perpetuated in the name of the “fair and balanced” approach.  The same way the world of high finance has directly defrauded the American people.  The same way the oil companies have been irresponsible with our environment and in many cases (Exxon Mobil) spend their money on propaganda meant to confuse and hoodwink the American public away from their better judgment about climate change.  In health care and insurance, we see exploitative forces given extraordinarily free reign over human life, so it’s not surprising that Americans themselves are wondering about the value of their lives.  All of this is a reflection of a deep and profound spiritual malaise that any country that has experienced broken promises would go through.  Can you blame anyone?

Not at all, it is a question of self medication as escapism.
Let’s not forget that a significant amount of the American public is simply using drugs for recreation.  The majority of people are not addicted, but what we have been focusing on is drug addiction.  If we saw addiction as recreational choice, where it wasn’t poverty, we wouldn’t have this phone call; I wouldn’t have made this movie; we wouldn’t have the world largest prison population.  The dominant theme of the problem is the people using drugs destructively in conditions which, in many other ways, are denigrating to them.  One of the things I’ve noticed is that drug laws have often been a pretext for efforts towards racial control of a population, for example.  This has been a historical reality that the film deals with.  What it doesn’t deal with is that our drug laws are a way for us to deny the actual casualties of the system we have in place.  What often happens is, when you look at a poor person that is also taking a drug, it is very easy and self gratifying  to point at the drug.  By doing that, you are pretending  poverty doesn’t  hurt them; the closure of their local recreation center doesn’t hurt them; r the termination of employment doesn’t  hurt them; the lack of healthcare doesn’t hurt them.  All of these things are hurting them, but how much easier it is to just say the drug did it.

Unfortunately, many tend to push the blame off to others, so the weakest in society or those with the most to lose, receive the brunt of it.  I think  it comes from a self loathing sentiment by the privileged class, and the corporatocracy. It is almost another form of self medication, where internal strife externalizes itself as a passing of responsibility.  Again, it is the easy way

I wanted to talk about this issue as it pertains to the state of Connecticut.  Being a CT native, the inclusion of New Haven in the film is of particular interest to me.  How did you gauge the temperature of this issue in your younger days in New Haven and how has it changed?  Per capita New Haven is one of the most crime ridden areas in the entire country.  When most people think of CT, they think of suburban wealth and old New England, not high crime rates and drug abuse.  This was also seen in relation to the recent Newtown shootings, where so many were drawn to the gun issue after affecting a suburban population, when serious gun violence is a daily reality in minority communities throughout the country.
I was pretty young when I was in New Haven so I didn’t have a direct relation to the drug issue then.  What I know is based on statistics, but New Haven is part of the avant-garde of the American cities that have seen drugs and the war waged on them, reek tremendous havoc alongside a host of other indignities.  The concentration of ills that has befallen cities like Detroit, Baltimore and New Haven is a national epidemic.

New Haven is a city that is very close to my heart.  It is my birth place and where a good deal of the movie takes place.  To give an example, Mannie Jeter’s (a New Haven resident most of her adult life) son, James, died of drug- related complications, as an unfortunate product of drugs as a health matter.  As a criminal matter, he, in turn, had a son who is also now incarcerated on a 30 years sentence in Cheshire Penitentiary.  James’s situation represents the multi generational detriment the drug war has had on African- American families.  The good news is James’s son is enrolled at Wesleyan as a matriculated prisoner, where he has a 4.0 GPA.  He is the leading success story in that program and is an extraordinary person who has used his time in jail extraordinarily productively.  He is the model of a young person who, despite the indignities visited on him and his family by the system, has used his time in the penitentiary to better himself to becoming a richer, more committed citizen

Finally, I would like to ask one film-specific question.  As a filmmaker, why is the “grass roots” approach to distribution the right model for ‘The House I Live In?  How far into its development did you decide on this approach?
The movie came out theatrically in October and is still out in some theaters.  This was followed by a digital launch on iTunes and other VOD platforms with FilmBuff.  We will also launch on PBS’ ‘Independent Lens‘ on April 8.  All of these add up to different and accumulating ways of getting the film out to audiences.  We also have different versions of the film that we show at prisons, churches and schools.  We show the full length version at prisons and churches across the country.  All of this is meant to add up to a wide grass roots presence, a wide social media presence and a wide multi-institutional presence.  There are 30 million Americans that are affected by the prison system, so, we think of all the ways we can get the film out to them.  We want them to understand their loved one’s experience is a human rights crisis of mass proportions.

Interview Conducted & Transcribed by Steve Rickinson

About Eugene Jarecki
Eugene Jarecki is an award-winning filmmaker, public thinker, and author.  His recent film ‘Reagan‘, received wide critical acclaim after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival and on HBO.  In 2010, Eugene Jarecki worked alongside Morgan Spurlock and Alex Gibney as director of a documentary film inspired by the bestselling book ‘Freakonomics‘.  His 2006 film, ‘Why We Fight’, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and a Peabody Award. Jarecki’s prior film, ‘The Trials of Henry Kissinger‘ won the 2002 Amnesty International Award, was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and has been broadcast in over thirty countries.  In addition to his work in film, Eugene Jarecki is also a thinker on international affairs, and has appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Charlie Rose, The Colbert Report, FOX News, CNN, PBS NOW, BBC World, NPR, MTV, The Tavis Smiley Show, Current TV, Clear Channel, Pacifica Radio, and Sirius Radio as well as having been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, the Daily News, the Village Voice, the New Yorker, the New York Observer, Vanity Fair, GQ, and Newsday.

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