The War on Drugs has been a controversial topic for as long as many people can now remember in the U.S.A. It is for this very reason that the war must be viewed critically for its effectiveness as there are now generations of people caught up in the war. The purpose of this essay is to look beyond what we believe the war on drugs to be from media reports and uninformed opinions. Instead the film ‘The House I Live In’ makes the viewer critical of the war and to look at it from a sociological perspective. The purpose of this paper is use information from the film to argue that the primary theme of the war is that the war is not working and is in fact detrimental to individuals and groups in our society. Further this paper aims to explore the relationship between the studies of sociology and the war on drugs. A section of the paper is dedicated to giving a personal opinion about what the film has achieved for the viewer. The consequence is that the learner’s practical role as a policy officer or health professional involved with drugs and alcohol is benefited. A final discussion gives personal reasons for how the film promotes reflective practice to learners within this context.
Primary Themes Addressed in Film
The primary theme surrounding the war on drugs is that it is not working for the individuals it is protecting and for society as a whole. In fact it is detrimental to most but a select few groups that have been able to exploit if for the economical and political reasons. The film depicts the effects on the War on Drugs as being detrimental on individuals, dealers, consumers, law enforcers, prisoners, politicians and the media. It forces the viewer to challenge their assumptions about the way that our society views not only the drug user and dealer but the uniformed public’s view of the institutions that are supposed to be in charge of stopping drug related activity.
It views subject matter historically, sociologically, economically and politically showing the whole process that the war on drugs has had on individuals and groups in society and why winning on the war is unattainable because of such subject matter. In fact it draws the conclusion that the unattainable nature of the war is beneficial socially and economically for select groups. This is argued within a historic context arguing that the war can be compared to many other wars that have ostracised minority groups. The film draws evidence of the detriment from film, academics and interviews. It shows the effect of the war on each individual and group then links this to the wider problem of stopping consumption and the distribution of drugs in the capitalist system.
The individual consumer is seen as largely uninformed and desperate because of the war on drugs. The ‘bad’ drug user is viewed as an enemy to be exploited by the media, politicians and law makers. The ‘problem’ of the user is the whole idea for creating the War on Drugs because it makes the public fearful of its intended consequences. Politicians can use these sentiments to implement policies that will possibly win votes by talking tough about drugs and eradicating the problem. An example of this is the use of mandatory minimum sentences for offenders. The problem with implementing such policies is that minority and certain racial groups like African Americans are disproportionately represented. Many of the policies on the war on drugs has effected individuals at the street level because of poor consideration of drug laws and changes to the economic and urban environment that have resulted in large numbers needing the drugs to deal for money or because of the desperate situation they find themselves in and need to release the pain.
The film views such laws as mandatory minimum sentences within a historic context that views policies aimed at stopping drugs as mostly race based. There is a history in the U.S.A of using drug laws against cocaine, marijuana, heroin, crack and more recently meth amphetamine that stop ethnic minorities and vulnerable people from taking all the labour and jobs from middle class white people. The government is unable to base laws on race because it would be compared to slavery but has instead used drug laws to discriminate against ethnic groups. This began with early migration of hard working Chinese immigrants who used opium in America. The laws were used against Chinese because there was no other way to use a law against that discriminates their race. Similar examples exist for other immigrants such as the Mexican immigrants that had links to Cocaine or against Italian ethnic minorities seen as drug dealers and mafia.
The situation of African Americans began with slavery and preceded by changes to the economy that saw many migrate to housing units in the Northern cities of America for work. They congregated there because they were excluded from the housing market and many other parts of life that white people were apart of because of laws designed to discriminate against them. Many were poor but were employed until the 1960’s when they were suddenly left without jobs. A large number of jobless African American with very little access to health, education and employment meant that there was a need for drugs to pay for food and other needs. Politicians like Richard Nixon and later Ronald Reagan exploited the drug war for votes and re-election to tame fears of the public about drugs issue. The movie shows how the individual caught up in the drug war has changed throughout history depending on what minority group that is targeted. Surprisingly the target of the War on Drugs is now gay men and white people from low socio economic groups that were caught up in political vote grabbing and media sensationalism of the new threat of meth amphetamine. The final part of the film shows not only black but white people being caught in the war on drugs. Historic evidence points to a comparison of the war to genocide, concentration camps that are usually reserved for war. The process that follows is a warning that we are all at risk and our rights can be taken away easily.
The family is seen as an extension of the individual’s problem. Parents without jobs and family breakdown as a result of unemployment have meant there is a lack of role models for vulnerable black youth. This makes it easy for them to be recruited into gangs and into dealing or to be turned into a consumer. An example in the film is of children recruited into gangs by being offered the latest shoes. This has progressed to the America of today where unemployment is very high and the drug problems are so bad that there are a generations of children that have no choice but to be born into the cycle of poverty and drug dealing to survive.
The film uses Nancy as the example of black woman that was born in the South of America into a nuclear family. Nancy was raped and felt ostracised from here community so she movesd to take a job as a nanny for a wealthy white family leaving her own family in the process. She was able to make money but was not able to provide the emotional support for her children. Her children are easily exploited into the drug trade because of a lack or role models. The family has been affected by the lack of employment prospects, poor housing and lack of a cohesive family unit able to support each other in difficult times. Her boy ends up in prison and involved with drug addiction and ultimately died from addiction.
The prisoner is a result of both the uniformed and desperate individual and the breakdown of the family. The prisoner like the individual and the family are one end result of the War on Drugs. Mandatory minimum sentences and drug laws that discriminate against ethnic minorities have resulted in an increase in prison numbers. Laws are designed that make it difficult for a felon to gain health education and employment making it economical viable to be a drug dealer because of the desperate situation many are faced with. This means that many people have been incarcerated for small drug charges and are in an endless cycle of incarceration.
Many African Americans have been caught up in the law maker’s poor wording of laws as well. The example used in the film is of powder and crack cocaine. They are essentially the same apart from a few simple ingredients however the penalties are vastly different. Crack cocaine has a penalty that is 100 times more and is the drug that is most used in poor African American neighbourhoods. The result is that jails are becoming overcrowded because many offenders are getting life sentences and very long sentences for dealing or consuming very small amounts of drugs. African Americans use 13 percent of crack and 90 percent are defendants with a case to do with the drug. If the drugs were consumed in a different form in white neighbourhoods, it would not be a case for a prison sentence. Rather than law makers and politicians addressing the problem, it is often on deaf ears because positive changes like rehabilitation for prisoners is often under resourced. It does not appeal to politicians who use tough law and order policies like building more prisons and more prison infrastructure.
There is an economic need for prisoners, prisons and there are financial incentives for corporations that support the needs of prisons. Prisoners are seen as cheap labour for building, call centres and many other industries. The prison communities are often the only source of labour in small towns and therefore there is very little support for changing such practices when it affects the economics of communities. The prisoner like many of the individuals depicted in the drug ridden communities is an endless cycle of poverty, family distress, drug addiction and is up against draconian laws. Any attempts are difficult to break out of the cycle because of laws that make it difficult to gain access to health, education and employment. There is a considerable economic incentive for reoffending making the war on drugs very difficult to win for law makers. Inefficiencies in the law and poor implementation of racially discriminative policy along with the economic and political forces that work against the winning the war do everything but prevent prisoners from reoffending.
The police in the film are depicted as tough and aggressive law enforcers that target individuals because of racial profiling, enforcing laws that are often draconian in nature and detrimental to individuals and communities. It shows that police are trying to do their jobs but are not able to because of inflexible laws and rigid views of offenders that reoffend again and again. Furthermore the investigative craft of detectives and police have been eroded because of policies that make it easy for departments and individuals to get rewarded both professionally and economically for the amount of arrests and seizures that they make. The film gives an example about officers being signed off for promotion because they made more arrests and sign offs meaning a promotion. An officer that has done 60 drug offences as opposed to one murder would probably get a promotion.
There are now much more punitive laws that make it difficult for small offences and the general public to enforce their civil liberties. This means that the quality of investigations has decreased dramatically; the public has a much more defensive position when dealing with police and the police themselves are having to enforce inflexible laws on the same offenders that are often minority groups because of their lack of access to education, health and many other services, family breakdown, incarceration and involvement in the legal system.
The legal system is trying to enforce laws that judges and law makers believe do not work and are a waste of their resources. They are confronted with inflexible laws and mandatory sentences that prevent them from stopping young offenders from being caught in the war on drugs permanently. Policy and legal changes are difficult to get through congress because changes are often not politically popular. Politicians are seen as responsible for the manufacturing ideas that relate to the war on drugs because they believe it is in their interest to do so and because they often believe it is in the public’s interest. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were used frequently in the film. They are seen as vote grabbers that use tough law and order policies that target a very fixed view of the offenders through any means possible because they believe it will fix America and the drug problem. In reality they often know that rehabilitation programs may work but are unpopular for getting votes because of the economic and corporate realities of the drug trade and prison. Both trades are a large part of the economy and a means of financial survival for some communities.
Relating Film to Course Material
The theme of the drug wars not working is related to individual and collective groups that are controlled not only by the addictive part of the drug but the policies and laws that are in place and are relate to the course material. The themes of the film also relate to information about alcohol treatment programs and to have a critical view on how the person is being treated within the sociological context of drugs. It also provides a critical view of policy making and law enforcement that makes for more reflective practice for when health care practitioners, policy makers and practitioners deal with substance abuse issues. Overall Reaction to Film
The overall reaction to the film is horror, disgust but also shock at my naivety about the institutions, individuals and groups that are close to the war on drugs. It has challenged any pre conceived views about drug users as being somehow deficient in some way. In reality the forces related to economy, politics and the law make it extremely difficult for an offender to break out of addiction. This is not only because of the drug addiction itself but because the resources that are required for them to stop using and reoffending are not economically sustainable in the long run. It is more economical for individuals to use drugs than to be caught in the War on Drugs and this is the most shocking part for me.
The end of the film takes the historical perspectives of how exploited people have been hated and persecuted in times of war. History shows that they were put in a position very similar to individuals caught in the War on Drugs. The phases begin with identifying a group that is evil or not worthwhile for some reason such as African American because of their skin colour or usage of drugs. The second face is for the public to learn to hate them and to ostracise these people. This is usually promoted through the media, discriminatory policies or through blatant political scare mongering shown in footage of congress, news reports and TV shows. The third phase is to take their rights away for example civil forfeiture of cash and assets related to suspected drug crimes even if there is no evidence of such a crime. The next step is to concentrate them into prisons and concentration camps resulting in health problems, exploited labour, low birth levels either indiscreetly or discreetly. This has happened to many African Americans that have been unable to break the cycle of poverty and drug addiction resulting in an early death. Such a process is compared to a holocaust in slow motion in the film.
I also was surprised to learn that everyone is part of the war on drugs and have the potential to lose their rights not just the traditional minorities but white people as well. Therefore as people involved in a field of work closely aligned to drug and alcohol policy, it is important that we do the best at fair and non racial policies and laws. It is also important to challenge this because we as individuals are the only way to fight the war because the capitalist system makes it difficult to stop such law and policies because of the constant need to make profit.
The film has changed any preconceived ideas about the effectiveness of the drug war and the ‘bad’ drug user. Instead the theme of the film relates to the War on Drugs not working and instead is detrimental to many groups in societies for the sake of a few select groups. It extends to individual drug users, dealers, prisoners, families, police and the legal fraternity. There is historical evidence to show that minority groups have been targeted throughout history for drug abuse to avoid laws that are outright discriminatory. Politicians have used hard line law and order polices such as mandatory sentencing and harsh drug laws resulting in groups such as African Americans being caught in an endless cycle of incarceration, poverty, family breakdown and involvement with police and the legal industry. It was surprising to learn that the new targets of the war are poor white people and that the war can be compared to the situation of many minority groups persecuted in war. So why is it that we continue to fight a war that disadvantages so many? The answer is that capitalism and economic realities make the war sustainable and politicians need to be elected making changes unpopular by the people that are supposed to be in control of creating laws for the people that do not harm. The film has challenged the student to be reflective and to think more broadly when creating policies and laws about drugs.
Jarecki, Eugene, Joslyn Barnes, Nicholas Fraser, Danny Glover, John Legend, Brad Pitt, Russell Simmons, Melinda Shopsin, Roy Ackerman, David Alcaro, Sam Cullman, John C. St, Nannie Jeter, David Simon, Derek Hallquist, Robert Miller, Paul Frost, and Joe Posner. The House I Live in., 2013.