Tuesday, 15 January 2013
Billions of dollars wasted, thousands of communities ruined, but one simple fact about the "War on Drugs" remains: it doesn't work
If you missed The House I Live In, a brilliant documentary about the colossal failure of America's so-called "war on drugs", shown on BBC Four last night as part of the Storyville strand, I urge you to watch it (you can view it on iPlayer here).
Directed by Eugene Jarecki, the film's take-home message was simple: while hard drugs ravage communities, the war on drugs finishes them off. If you've ever watched The Wire and wondered if it was over-egging the pudding, Jarecki's film made you realise it was virtually a fly-on-the-wall documentary (the show's creator, David Simon, popped up as a talking head discussing his time on the streets of Baltimore as a journalist observing the results of current drug policy).
The film contained some fascinating insights. For example, while Nixon is credited with launching the war on drugs, his hard-line rhetoric was actually offset by some relatively progressive policy ideas, with two third of the money spent on treatment for addicts and only a third on tougher policing.
Best of all, Jarecki also took the time to talk to young men - mostly poor, black young men - who dealt drugs or had been convicted of doing so. He dismantled the idea that drugs were simply a matter of personal choice. As Simon pithily put it: history shows that if you take a company town and remove the company [or rather outsource all its jobs to China], new illegal industries will spring up to fill the vacuum. In some places becoming a drug dealer is the only logical career choice.
In case you think that sounds like bleeding heart left-wing cant, the film featured interviews with judges, law and order-loving prison officers - check out, for example, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) - and weary-looking drugs cops, all saying pretty much the same thing. The war on drugs not only isn't working, it's actually exacerbating the problem.
Surely if everyone agrees the war on drugs is ineffective, things are set to change? If only it were so simple. For one thing, only a tiny minority of US politicians are prepared to put their head above the parapet on the issue - most, perhaps rightly, assume that anything other than a hard-line stance on drugs would be electoral death.
The other thing that keeps drug reform off the agenda is perhaps even more disturbing: America's prison industry. At present the US has 2.3 million citizens incarcerated, the highest in the world, and there is a burgeoning industry with a vested interest in building more prisons, which means more prisoners are needed to fill them. It should come as no surprise that these corporate interests are lobbying hard for a continuation of the status quo.
Is it possible to have a rational debate about drugs? Films like The House I Live In would suggest it is. But until politicians truly commit themselves to evidence-based politics and lobbyists are challenged, the war on drugs will continue to destroy lives and communities across the globe.