Eugene Jarecki’s powerful documentary The House I Live In, which won the Sundance Film Festival Grand Prize, traces the roots of the War on Drugs and lays out the inequalities in drug enforcement, mandatory sentencing, and the prison system, while also explaining the economic realities that create both drug problems and a rise in incarceration. Using his relationship with his family’s longtime caregiver, Nannie Jeter (Nannie is her given name, not her title in the household) and her family as a stepping off point, Jarecki explores the failure of America’s drug policy.

Over $1 trillion dollars spent over the past 40 years have made no dent: Drugs today are purer, cheaper, and more available than ever. And America which has 5% of the world’s population has the world’s largest population of incarcerated, the majority of which are serving time for non-violent, drug crimes. Police departments profit from drug arrests under RICO, police officers make more overtime pay with each drug arrest, and are positioned for advancement based on the numbers of arrests they make.  There is an incentive to roust the “suspicious” (and yes, profiling happens), rather than to focus on the harder to solve crimes like murder, rape, and robbery, and this leads to a greater distrust of police in urban communities further creating a war-like atmosphere.

And then there’s mandatory sentencing, which even judges find imbalanced and counterproductive, yet which has provided a vast economic boost to rural areas where whole towns now rely on privatized prisons as their economic base, moving populations from poor, racially concentrated neighborhoods (ghettos) into incarceration.

What is at the root of America’s (perceived) drug problem? When the War on Drugs began, about 2% of the population felt drugs were a major problem facing America, yet in a bid to seem electable, politicians became “hard on crime,” and drug use–which for over a century was used as way to marginalize non-white members of society–was the easy target. From the late 1960s on, black Americans, first with heroin and then crack cocaine, became the focus of the War on Drugs; before that it was the Chinese with opium, and Mexicans with marijuana. But for disadvantaged and marginalized classes, underground prohibited economies have long been the only means for survival. And now, because of the shifting economic downturns,  white Americans have turned to home-based meth making and dealing, providing a whole new stream of inmates for the prison business. In an interview with  Jarecki, David Simon, creator of the acclaimed television series The Wire and a former crime reporter, exposes the mentality behind the scenes:

All these Americans, we don’t need them any more, factories are closing… Let’s get rid of the bottom fifteen per cent of the country, lets lock them up. In fact, let’s see if we can make money off of locking them up….At that point why don’t you just say, “Kill the poor, if we kill the poor we gonna be a l0t better off,” because that’s what the drug war has become.

While drug laws have become an economic stimulus on the backs of poor people, addiction expert Gabor Mate´ expounds that we are not treating the reasons people do drugs, that at its core drug use is a deep situational and public health issue, not a criminal matter.  Jarecki weaves a tragic tapestry, the interconnecting threads of a dreadlocked professor whose son is facing drug charges; a woman who deals drugs in her neighborhood to make ends meet and provide for her family and the children who live in the projects; a young man facing a minimum of five years in prison whose own father grew up idolizing the dealers in his neighborhood and was subsequently jailed for drug dealing; a prison guard who sees the realities of his job; patrol cops and narcotics officers; prison reformers; and the entwined lives of the Jarecki family and Nannie Jeter, who left her children in New Haven to earn more money and hopefully better their condition by moving to New York in order to care for Eugene and his brother, whose own parents were strong civil rights supporters.

The House I Live In takes its title from a song about America; the great Paul Robeson, himself a civil rights crusader, sings the version that rolls over the end credits, a fitting coda for this film as America is the house we live in; and with current drug policies, we are building additions and renovating on very ugly, shaky foundations, on the backs of the poor and disadvantaged.