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War without End: 'The House I Live In' Deconstructs America's Failed Drug Policies

By wanda bershen

Amid the media frenzy surrounding the Republican and Democratic conventions and upcoming elections, perhaps you find yourself in need of something more substantive than dialogue with empty chairs. By all means, check out Eugene Jarecki's The House I Live In, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year. The film opens October 5 in New York City, and will tour to cities across America through the fall.

The House I Live In takes on the 40-year history of the "War on Drugs," exploring in depth why it has been such a costly failure. No dry exegeses, this story is full of unexpected twists and turns, and compelling accounts from police officers, prison authorities, Federal judges, journalists, politicians, inmates and families trying to deal with drug users in their own homes. Jarecki lays out complex issues in accessible terms, delineating a clear analysis of what has happened over four decades-- and in the process telling the stories of individuals from all over the United States.


From Eugene Jarecki's The House I Live In. Phot: Sam Cullman. Courtesy of Charlotte St. Films


Opening with his personal account of his family background and that of Nannie Jeter, his African-American childhood caretaker, Jarecki counterpoints the experience of the two families throughout the film. While his white, Jewish family moved up the economic ladder, Nannie lost a son to drugs and had to migrate north to find work. That was how she became part of the Jarecki family.

One of the key issues in the film is the contention by several academics and journalists that drug policy is driven by economics. Scholar Richard Lawrence Miller relates an eye-opening history of drug policies as a means to oppress minority populations in America, whether through the criminalization of opium to purge the Chinese in California, or cocaine and hemp to vilify blacks and Mexicans.

This disturbing pattern is what journalist/television producer David Simon (The Wire) characterizes as a "chain of destruction." Draconian sentencing laws have driven thousands into the prison system, which has consequently evolved into a big business--in many cases providing economic support to entire towns. There's more of an incentive, then, to populate the prisons than to address the culture of drugs.


Journalist/TV producer David Simon, featured in Eugene Jarecki's The House I Live In. Photo: Sam Cullman. Courtesy of Charlotte St. Films


"Drug abuse is ultimately a matter of public health that has instead been treated as an opportunity for law enforcement and an expanding criminal justice system," Jarecki observes. "I saw how this misguided approach has helped make America the world's largest jailer, imprisoning her citizens at a higher rate per capita than any other nation on earth."

Police officers in the film reveal that colleagues with multiple arrests per week or month are able to generate significant overtime pay, while those in homicide or fraud don't get those perks. The Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, laws enacted in the 1980s allow cops to pull over any car and search for drugs, even if they find nothing and make no arrests. In the process the police may confiscate any drugs or large sums of cash they find.

Mike Carpenter, chief of security at Lexington Corrections Center in Oklahoma, doesn't mince words in describing the policy failure, which forces everyone-law enforcers and defendants- into untenable positions. "Some of the prison guards there were among the most thoughtful people I have met and have better ideas on how to change things than most I've heard," Jarecki notes. "They confront the problems of over-crowding, over-penalization of non-violent drug offenders, and diminishing resources on a daily basis."

We also hear from US District Court Judge Mark Bennett regarding the disastrous results of the extreme sentencing laws. He has no choice but to give life sentences to defendants arrested for possession of a small amount of drugs. That is a major way the prison system has mushroomed into a billion-dollar industry.


Photo: Etienne Sauret. Courtesy of Charlotte St. Films


What makes The House I Live In so engaging is the access Jarecki manages, even in situations that could show his subjects in a bad light. He stresses the importance of taking time to get to know people before interviewing them on camera in order to understand the context they inhabit. One of his subjects, a town marshal in New Mexico, was initially a chance encounter; Jarecki had asked him for directions. They started talking, and Jarecki asked him about the war on drugs. The marshal not only obliged, but also made both his office and his home available for filming interviews-and he provided valuable insight into aspects of the system in which he works.

Contrast the marshal with Larry, an inmate who admits to Jarecki that prison was the best thing that happened to him, underscoring how unforgiving life is for drug users on the outside. Larry vents about how funding for skills training in prisons too often gets diverted by politicians who maintain their power through War on Drugs posturing.

With access to such a rich range of individuals comes responsibility to them, especially in how they're filmed. "The trouble with a camera--particularly a camera that is ultimately making a product to sell to the public--is that it can, even with the best of intentions, become yet another instrument of abuse, something that can woefully compromise human dignity if misused," Jarecki explains. "I have often been filming people in compromising positions--whether they are on the receiving end of our callous and broken system of draconian laws or whether they are charged with enforcing them--and it often doesn't look good for any of them. For others, seeing police enforce laws that are unjust and make arrests that too often accrue to their personal benefit does not make them look very good either. So the balancing act, ethically, of portraying people candidly and rigorously while preserving their dignity before the camera is a delicate one."

When it comes to editing, Jarecki sticks to his overall objective, even when some footage might be particularly powerful. Sometimes he has to "muscle out" his best footage, since he won't use anything which looks like an ambush of the subject. His aim in the editing room was to show how social, political and economic systems become dysfunctional and how damaging those systems are to individual lives. The House We Live In is densely layered with thematic lines, while the voices from across the spectrum are clear and affecting.

Despite the cataclysmic failure of the war on drugs, Jarecki cites inspiring efforts towards reform from many groups, including The Sentencing Project, which advocates fir reforms iun sentencing policies; and the Drug Policy Alliance, which works to change unjust laws at the federal and local levels.

After four years in production on The House I Live In, Jarecki is about to embark on an extensive two-year outreach tour not only to theaters, but also to churches, high schools and professional associations and their conferences. Jarecki has already screened his film for such key policy makers as Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, who took part in discussions with the filmmaker at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June, and representatives from the New York City District Attorney's office and the New York Department of Corrections, who attended a screening hosted by the Ford Foundation in New York. Jarecki believes the next two years of touring with the film will inspire more and more people to become active in pursuing reform for the issues he has so passionately put on screen.


Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki


Wanda Bershen is a consultant on fundraising, festivals and distribution. Documentary clients have included Sonia, Power Trip, Afghan Women, Trembling Before G*D, Blacks & Jews. She has organized programs with the Human Rights Film Festival, Brooklyn Museum and Film Society of Lincoln Center and currently teaches arts management at CUNY Baruch. Visit