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The War on Drugs Is a “Miserable Failure”

A large crowd packed the pews of the historic Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. on Saturday. After a deacon introduced such VIP guests as Representatives Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and John Lewis (D-Georgia), the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and actor Danny Glover, Pastor Wallace Charles Smith set the stage for the afternoon’s program.

“One of the biggest problems facing this nation and much of the world is the drug epidemic,” said Smith. “It doesn’t seem like this nation has made it a real priority. As long as there is the demand there will be someone who will supply it.”

A prisoner in film THE HOUSE I LIVE IN
Photo courtesy of Derek Hallquist, The House I Live In


Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight, Freakonomics) told the crowd that he considers the War on Drugs a “primary human rights issue.” On hand to screen an abridged version of his 2012 film The House I Live In (which took the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance), Jarecki said the day’s program was “bookended by two momentous occasions, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and Barack Obama’s inauguration, which includes a swearing in on Dr. King’s bible.”

Jarecki added, “I consider [the War on Drugs] the unfinished work of the Civil Rights Movement.”

“Amens” rang out from the crowd.

“The Drug War and its extraordinary injustice to people of color must end,” said Jarecki. “I don’t just want it on the radar, I want it flashing defcon red. The War on Drugs as we know it has failed so miserably that who can defend it?”

The Real-Life Wire

In The House I Live In, David Simon, creator of The Wire and former Baltimore crime reporter, served as an expert “talking head,” in front of the camera this time to guide viewers through the labyrinthine world of illicit substances. “What drugs haven’t destroyed the War on Drugs has,” Simon said in the documentary. “It’s Draconian and it doesn’t work.”

Simon pointed out that the U.S. has spent $1 trillion and made 45 million arrests since Richard Nixon declared a “total war” on drugs in 1971, yet illegal substances are easier to get and stronger than ever, he said.

“There are more black people in jail now in America than were enslaved in 1850,” said Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow.

“It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that few escape,” added the film’s narration.

In a poignant scene, the head of a corrections facility told the camera, “We have people doing a whole lot of time for not a lot of crime.” An inmate said wearily, “I want to know why I’m being treated like I murdered someone; I got 57 years for a [crack] rock.”

The film points out that despite lingering perceptions, 13% of U.S. crack users are black, the same percentage that African-Americans make up in the U.S. population. Yet until recently, the penalty was 100 times greater for crack than powder cocaine, which has historically been associated with whites and the affluent. The penalty was recently reduced to 18 times–but that’s still not good enough, the film suggests.

Throughout its history, the War on Drugs has disproportionally impacted minorities, the film posits, sometimes even to suit racial agendas (such as the outlawing of opium in California allegedly to target the Chinese in the early 20th century, even though the drug was said to be popular among the white majority as well).

Gabor Mate, a physician who specializes in addiction treatment, said on camera that the War on Drugs has failed to deal with the big picture of wider problems in society. Mate said trying to simply stamp out drug use through force is akin to suppressing a cough in someone who has pneumonia, yet the lungs remain inflamed.

After the screening, R&B star John Legend sang a haunting cover of the Paul Robeson song “The House I Live In,” which set a vision for a better America and inspired the film’s title.  Legend, who served as an executive producer on the film, said, “The prison system is how we carry a legacy of slavery. Even with a black president we have to speak out against abuse of power.” 

David Simon in the film THE HOUSE I LIVE IN
David Simon explains the shortfalls of drug policy in The House I Live In. Photo courtesy of Samuel Cullman, The House I Live In


Better Solutions?

Setting the stage for a lively panel discussion, Harvard Law Professor (and personal advisor to President Obama) Charles Ogletree said that the goal of society should not be to wage war on its citizens, but to “get people healthy, get them jobs, get them educated, and to help them make a difference.”

U.S. Representative Robert Scott (D-Virginia) told the audience that he has been working to address many of the issues in the film with his proposed Youth Promise Act, “a comprehensive response to youth violence through a coordinated prevention and intervention response.” According to the Congressman’s website, “Representatives from local law enforcement, the school system, court services, social services, health and mental health providers, foster care providers, other community and faith-based organizations will form a council to develop a comprehensive plan for implementing evidence-based prevention and intervention strategies.  The plans can be funded up to four years.  The act also enhances state and local law enforcement efforts regarding youth and gang violence.”

Scott said that research by Pew has shown that locking up more than 500 people per 100,000 citizens is harmful to society, both in terms of expense and collateral damage in impacts to families. Yet the national average is 700 per 100,000, and 10 states have as many as 4,000 per 100,000 in jail.

Scott said getting those states to the Pew average of 500 per 100,000 would free up about $10,000 per child to be used for improved education, crime prevention, and social services. “Instead of a cradle-to-prison pipeline we need a cradle-to-college-and-a-job pipeline, and it’s cheaper; primary prevention reduces many costs and will reduce gun violence,” Scott said.

Jarecki quoted Dostoyevsky, who said one can judge a society by the quality of its prisons. Jarecki added that 30 million Americans have a family member in prison. He said the U.S. prison population has surged by 700% since the start of the War on Drugs. “Britain has 41 people in prison for life and we have 41,000,” he said.

Danny Glover, who also executive produced The House I Live In (along with Brad Pitt and Russell Simmons), told the crowd about his younger brother Reginald, who he said was a Vietnam vet who long suffered with substance abuse. Glover said Reginald eventually got clean and went to work helping others overcome the same demons.

“I see Reginald’s story replicated many times,” said Glover. “We have to ask the right questions.”

For Jarecki, that means making sure drug policy doesn’t unfairly impact minorities and treating drug use “as a health issue, not a criminal one.”

Saturday’s program was simulcast to hundreds of churches, and will be repeated at other faith-based venues across the country in the coming weeks. A full copy of The House I Live In is available on iTunes for 99 cents today.


Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science, TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVACGreen LightingBuild Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.



  1. Jon
    North Carolina
    April 1, 2013, 4:30 pm

    Gary from Texas, you are correct there are many privately run prisons in the US. There are so many, in fact, that a new term has been coined to describe them, the “Prison Industrial Complex.”
    The prisons you speak of are only “for profit” for their owners. Otherwise they operate at great expense to the communities and governments they serve. The reason these prisons are profitable for their owners is “THEY RECEIVE PUBLIC FUNDS FOR EACH PRISONER!”
    That’s right, those good old profitable prisons are still being supported by your tax dollars. In fact, because there is so much money to be made there is now a “demand” for prisoners. State run institutions will broker prisoner swaps with private prisons for profit. The important message here, however is, this is a DRAIN upon our economy, not a boon. Healthy working age adults are in prison not producing any measurable contribution to the economy. You see, in most cases, the “outside work” that prisoners do, even is privatized prisons, is still subsidized by the state.. otherwise what incentive would businesses have to use Prison labor?

    Anyway, as the article points out, prisons are a huge drain upon our economy and we would be much better off spending that money on education. Not just D.A.R.E. anti-drug education, but actual knowledge.

  2. Gary
    March 29, 2013, 8:29 pm

    Quite an intruiging article, This is indeed a major social issue of our times, and undoubtedly the majority of victims of this system are African Americans unfairly condemned to excessive amounts of time for petty, mostly drug related crimes.

    Although, after reading, I have a question for fellow readers regarding this issue. From what I know a majority of our prisons that incarcerate these nonviolent petty crime offenders are privately-owned “businesses”. Basically, if you had the money, you could invest by buying a prison, hire your own private guards, and through offering the prisoners absolute minimum payment for medial jobs creating a product (such as liscense plates), you can rake in large profits.

    If this is in fact the case, It’s hard for me to see that this “industry” can be so detrimental to our economy. I can understand that as of now that the number of Americans incarcerated for life in federal prisons that are not privately operated can very well act as a leech in the United States uphill struggle to revive the economy after the ’08 recession. Changes are definitely in need to this system, and I’d like to express the solutions I have.

    Firstly, I do not think the war on drug is as detrimental as this article suggests. Growing up, through the excessive amount of school wide anti-drug activities and education, I was successfully ingrained with the idea that drug are in fact BAD and that they should be avoided and that we should together work to rid our communities as much as possible from them for the greater good of the people. I know that all of my friends, regardless of race, received this same message. As I grew older I was able to to observe slowly that drugs are very well here to stay, and that the total-war approach was a little much for many minor offenses with small of amounts of substances, especially the ones that actually do nothing bad whatsoever and even make people less violent (such as marajuana). Now I was able to deduct this possibly because of my somewhat more privileged (Caucasian) upbringing in a middle class family in a middle class neighborhood, I am aware this makes me slightly biased, but the anti-drug movement in schools I experienced in my grade school years was nationwide, an I honestly believe the the majority of Americans in my generation (I am 21 presently) have this anti-drug sentiment very well ingrained in their heads. This cannot be bad for the country socially, and possibly with a little lax on the total war aspect, should be continued, along with other federally required education programs in our school over other social issues of importance.

    What needs to be done is we need to greatly reduce the number of peoples imprisoned for life for drug and nonviolent offensies and the length of sentences and direct these inmates to these privately owned money making prisons.

    The idea of imprisonment of criminals was basically invented and definitely perfected by the United States. Slavery was a huge boost to our economy when in place, which is why thousands of white men were willing to die toprotect it in 1861, as it was their livelyhood.

    We should use our prison workforce to create a similar boosting effect to our economy as did slavery, while at the same time spending money on education in low income areas in order to reduce the number of minorities who are subjected to the effects of being raised in a poorly educated crime ridden neighborhood, and when people are enter educated, decisions to do risky activities that will eventually end them up in the slammer.

    This is just my speculation on the issue, and I understand that it encompasses a vety small part of a problem that is very large.

    I would appreciate anyone’s responses of insight on my thoughts or this issue, thanks.

  3. kolette
    Lagos. Nigeria.
    January 26, 2013, 5:34 pm

    The article is educative, i believe there is a way of curbing drug use and addiction in the society.Please do send me mails, Thank you

  4. Stephen
    January 26, 2013, 5:20 pm

    Over here in the uk, drugs are illegal but there has been mention of de-criminalising most of them or regulate them so they’re only available in licenced outlets. I have used cannabis since early teens, although i’ve tried other narcotics as an adult. I have never stole, got in to trouble or become a problem towards others whilst under the influence. I’m more likely to cause problem after alcohol, but drinking is perfectly acceptable because it’s legal. I say legalize it all, not only can they help to manage addicts it will cut crime because then addicts wouldn’t have to steal for thier next “fix”. On top of that, if it was legalized the people who make it could cut most of the bad stuff out so then there wouldn’t be any accidental overdoses, thus saving the nhs money. The way I look at it, it’s a win win situation.

  5. preston robinsn
    boston, mass
    January 24, 2013, 3:22 pm

    As always its good knowing that there are others who share many of my sentiments concerning our society and the way/why things are as explained. I comend those who’ve found the arena from which they might express these sentiments. May I soon find mine, ready to be active. Preston

  6. Ima Ryma
    January 24, 2013, 2:45 am

    Drug addiction is slavery.
    The “magic” snort or shot or pop,
    That makes being minority
    A numbing fix, at least till caught,
    And then locked up to prove to folk
    That gov is scaring drugs away.
    The war on drugs becomes a joke,
    As all the gov statistics say.
    The power of the drug cartels
    Put the gov huff and puff to shame.
    Get high and higher each drug sells,
    Forcing more slaves into the game.

    The master drugs do win the war,
    Enslaving humans more and more.

  7. malcolm kyle
    January 23, 2013, 4:58 am

    Prohibition has finally run its course: Our prisons are full, our economy is in ruins, the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of Americans have been destroyed or severely disrupted. What was once a shining beacon of liberty and prosperity has become a toxic, repressive, smoldering heap of hypocrisy and a gross affront to fundamental human decency.

    Accordingly, it is now the duty of every last one of us to insure that the people who are responsible for this shameful situation are not simply left in peace to enjoy the wealth and status that their despicable actions have, until now, afforded them. Former and present Prohibitionists must not be allowed to remain untainted and untouched from the unconscionable acts that they have viciously committed on their fellow citizens. They have provided us with neither safe communities nor safe streets. We will provide them with neither a safe haven to enjoy their ill-gotten gains nor the liberty to repeat such a similar atrocity.

  8. K. Evan Rude
    Lyons Colorado
    January 22, 2013, 11:32 pm

    One cannot have a rational discussion about gun violence in society without the drug war as the primary cause. In America, since Sandy Hook it’s gotten rediculous! It’s the video games, it’s the NRA, it’s the Tea Bagger Republicans. It’s NOT the NRA members creating the gun violence. It’s NOT the Tea Baggers creating the gun violence. Wars are fought with guns’ and, guns kill people. When a war is ended, people stop dying in that war. When NAFTA, which outsourced our jobs is coupled with prohibition, it’s a recepie for disaster. It’s THE DRUG WAR PEOPLE!!! End gun violence! End THE DRUG WAR, END THE GUN VIOLENCE!!!

  9. Denise Krochta
    United States
    January 22, 2013, 6:17 pm

    I would encourage those interested in this issue to check out my radio show interview with Patrick Heintz, a member of LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) that will air beginning monday, January 28th. Here is the link: http://webtalkradio.net/internet-talk-radio/addicted-to-addicts-survival-101/

  10. Janet Innes-Kirkwood
    January 22, 2013, 11:13 am

    The mass incarceration that has resulted from the War on Drugs is truly a national disgrace. We have 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners. The State Department looks hypocritical and foolish as it goes around the world and lectures other countries on Human Rights. When you see that America locks up Black Citizens in the numbers that we do it raises serious questions about how America operates as an apartheid system with unequal access to jobs, education, housing, and other resources. Clearly America is not a leader to follow in the criminal justice arena. Ridicule should rightly rain down on the leaders who have created such a nightmare of iniquity in the land of the “free.”