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Sundance doc examines costs of U.S. war on drugs

Published January 27, 2012 12:16 pm

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Park City • Eugene Jarecki's documentary at the Sundance Film Festival looks at the cost of America's war on drugs — its social and human as well as financial cost.

With "The House I Live In," the filmmaker takes a close-up look at the results of U.S. drug policy.

Jarecki said he was moved to explore the issue because, while his parents escaped persecution in Nazi Germany, he sees another kind of Holocaust taking place in poor communities hit by harsh drug laws and mandatory minimum sentences.

The film includes interviews with inmates, dealers, narcotics officers, judges, professors and historians.

Jarecki argued that American drug laws have targeted minorities since the 1800s, and the lack of opportunities that continue to exist in poor and minority neighborhoods create an environment in which drug use and sales seem like a viable choice.

"To go down to a drug corner in the inner city is the rational act of somebody going to work in the only company that exists in a company town," said journalist and creator of HBO's "The Wire" David Simon, who is featured in the film.

Jarecki said that in communities plagued by unemployment, violence, absentee parents and overcrowded schools, people often turn to drugs to self-medicate, then find themselves addicted.

"Now you've got that dangerous cocktail of a user who's also a seller, and so many of the people I talked to are that," he said. "What they are not is violent. What they are not is a threat to you and me. And we are putting them away for sentences that are worse than the sentences we give to people who are violent." He said the United States is "the world's largest jailer."

He attributes the problem in part to fear-mongering by politicians wanting to appear tough on crime, so they target drug users and sellers with hefty prison sentences. But that cycle of incarceration creates more poverty, more absentee parents, more unemployment and more pain from which to escape.

Jarecki's other documentaries include "Freakonomics" and "Why We Fight," which won the Grand Jury prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.

Awards for this year's festival will be presented Saturday. Sundance continues through Sunday.