ON JUNE 17, 1971, Dick Nixon, as sallow and sweaty as ever, awkwardly took the stage at a press conference that was supposed to give him one more laurel for his looming reelection. Instead, he spat out words that forever diminished American history.
"We must wage what I have called total war against public enemy number one in the United States," he said, "the problem of dangerous drugs."
But Nixon's "war"—which once, if quietly, prized treatment over punishment—has long since crumbled into a grim siege with no winners. Just losers. Despite nearly $1 trillion in spending, plus a cruel range of choker-collar drug laws and sentencing provisions, abuse and addiction rates remain largely unchanged.
Meanwhile, the nation-wrecking fallout is everywhere—in hollowed-out African American neighborhoods, in education budgets starved to fund our addiction to a vengeful jurisprudence, and in stuffed, for-profit prisons whose owners reliably buy elected officials committed to the status quo.
No, this isn't a new story. But it's not bullshit to say it's never been told better, or more effectively, than in Eugene Jarecki's damning documentary The House I Live In. With a parade of glum statistics and wrenchingly honest testimonials from the supposed foot soldiers helping the government wage this futile fight, Jarecki (Why We Fight) has produced a masterful overview of the modern drug war's racist roots and its still-blossoming poison flowers. (And, let's not forget another bonus: The Wire's David Simon, and his flapping genius lips, are in heavy rotation.)
Jarecki reminds us that drug laws have historically been wielded against "uppity" ethnic populations (the Chinese and opium bans, Mexicans and marijuana laws, among others). He also makes clear that our modern war—declared amid an unprecedented urban migration of black Americans—deserves its own place among that terrible tradition's rightful descendants.