New PBS documentary probes war on drugs in ‘The House I Live In’

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 4/3/2013, 7:15 a.m.

As historian Richard Miller points out, the link between drug policy and race reaches back hundreds of years.

During the 19th century, many of today’s illicit drugs — such as cocaine, heroin and opium — were legal, and frequently used by upper-class whites. California was the first state to criminalize smoking opium, not coincidentally, around the same time that the drug was being used by upwardly mobile Chinese immigrants on the West coast.

Similarly, hemp — which was once an agricultural staple in the United States — was banned in the 1930s as it became associated with Mexican immigrants and known by its Spanish name, marijuana, and cocaine was outlawed as African Americans migrated to Northern cities.

“These laws set up a very dangerous precedent of racial control,” Miller says in the film, and “target immigrant groups seen as threatening to the economic order.”

Decades later, these drug laws were taken to another level. “When Nixon launched the Drug War in 1971, that ad hoc, improvised history of drug laws with racial implications was suddenly codified into a federal and state-by-state program on a national scale,” Jarecki says. “Once a little law here or a little law there being implemented in improvised ways, became systematized.”

In one of his previous works, the 2005 documentary, “Why We Fight,” Jarecki investigated the country’s military-industrial complex — and the filmmaker says that it bears striking resemblance to the system of mass incarceration produced by the Drug War.

“They’re just two very good examples of our willingness to put profit before people and principle,” he says. “For wars that profit a specific subset of the population, we trade the very lives of our own young men and women and a lot of men, women and children overseas. And the prison industrial system is the domestic sister of the military industrial complex, in the sense that here at home, we’re trading human lives for economic profit.”

While Jarecki finds some hope that the Drug War may be crumbling after Colorado and Washington’s recent vote to legalize marijuana, he still says there’s a long way to go.

“We’ve been at this for four decades,” he says. “And what do we have to show for it? A record of total failure: Drugs are cheaper, purer and more in demand and more in use today than ever before.”

“The House I Live In” premieres on WGBH on Monday, April 8 at 10 p.m.