Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease, but the trick is that it can take decades to find out. Now the evidence is in and our nation’s 40-year “War on Drugs” has proven a failure. The tally is grim: 2.3 million Americans in jail, with another 5 million “in the system” of correctional supervision. That’s the highest in the world — more than even China’s 1.6 million jailed out of a population a billion people larger than ours. And we failed on the disease, too, as the availability of drugs has never been higher, according to the Department of Justice.

But sometimes facts can be too clinical — Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed perceptions of slavery the way no statistic ever could. That’s why Eugene Jarecki’s haunting documentary, The House I Live In, is so important. His Sundance Grand Prize winner not only feeds you facts, but it slugs you in the gut with human pain — so many lives have been ruined by our “cure.”

The film, which just debuted on PBS, plays like the backstory to the HBO drug war epic, The Wire. And David Simon, creator of The Wire and a journalist who covered the drug war in Baltimore, leaves you gasping for air when he observes matter-of-factly that our drug war is “a holocaust in slow motion” — that our jails have become something like concentration camps for the least among us. It’s a chilling indictment of a collective wrong that needs righting.

Violent crime does attend the drug trade, but too many people are in jail for life over possession of small amounts on a “third strike.” In the years since Richard Nixon announced the war on drugs as a way to get re-elected, and especially after Ronald Reagan and Congress stepped on the gas with mandatory minimum sentencing rules, a prison industrial complex has arisen and become deeply enmeshed in our economy. It feeds on desperate people making mistakes, and we have a steady supply.

There must always be jails for those who deserve to be locked up. But as The House I Live In shows, we’re way past that.

Elected officials are not going to change anything; the chance to get tough on crime is like catnip. It’s going to be up to the citizens to attack this with common sense and compassion. How? We need to get back to traditional justice and away from mandatory sentencing. We have to treat drug abuse as a sickness, not a crime. And we must somehow start to dismantle the mass incarceration operation being undertaken in all of our names. 

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About The Author

Ted S. McGregor Jr.

Ted S. McGregor, Jr. grew up in Spokane and attended Gonzaga Prep high school and the University of the Washington. While studying for his Master's in journalism at the University of Missouri, he completed a professional project on starting a weekly newspaper in Spokane. In 1993, he turned that project into reality...