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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 25th December 2012

Though it had looked unlikely as late as noon, yesterday, I was able to travel to Edinburgh to watch Eugene Jarecki’s documentary, ‘The House I live In’. I’d read a lot about it and very much wanted to see it for myself.

The personal issues that threatened to force me to abandon my plans were weighing on my mind and, having not been to the cinema for nine years, I’d forgotten how much rubbish cinema audiences are forced to endure before the film they have paid to see begins. By the time it started I was very much of a mind to leave and return home as soon as the film became boring or the exposition of its points became trite.

I stayed to the end.

Most 50 minute TV documentaries seem to find the need to repeat their central points several times but Jarecki fills 108 minutes with a spare consideration of many of the different aspects of the drug war in the USA.

Based around the story of Nannie Jeter, the black woman who worked for his family, Jarecki uses a variety of expert talking heads together with interviews with people involved with drugs, from convicted dealers to prison guards and a federal judge, to demonstrate the appalling way the US government deals with the issue.

It is an intriguing account of a complex situation but two hypotheses stood out. I’m not sure whether either can be fully sustained; the first, in particular, struck me as possibly the result of cherry-picking but, nonetheless, they are thought provoking.

Jarecki’s timeline for the development of drug prohibition seeks to make it a story of protectionism. He says that the earliest 20th century drug control measure was when California outlawed opium smoking as a means of demonising immigrant Chinese who were prepared to work harder, and for less, than the white working class.

He says the same was true with the characterisation of cocaine as a black drug at a time when many blacks were moving from the rural south to the industrialised north. Outlawing cocaine was a way to pursue racial prejudice. And, he says the same occurred in the southern states when Cannabis sativa, marijuana, was brought across the border by Mexican migrants.

There are many strands to the development of the present drug control regime and I don’t think Jarecki has found the only answer to how we came to be here but it is, I’m sure, a substantial component of how policies that ignore science were implemented.

Jarecki’s other theory is introduced by one of his interviewees, whose name I missed and haven’t been able to find online. This is the notion that there are similarities between the drug war in the USA and the Holocaust. He described the Holocaust as being a four part programme and used that to make his comparison.

Part 1 is identification; define a group that you can cite as being responsible for the ills in society.

Part 2 involves ostracises that group so that everyone is aware that they are outcasts intent on destroying what ‘decent’ people are seeking to create.

Part 3 is concentration; bringing the ostracised group together where its activities can be tightly controlled. For the Nazis this meant the concentration camps, for the US this is the burgeoning prison system.

Part 4 is elimination. Jarecki’s interviewees accepted that this is where the comparison mostly falls down but only ‘mostly’ because the effects of long-term incarceration, poorer healthcare and the well-known increase in death risk immediately following release from prison do make convicted drug felons more likely to die that the general population.

It is to the credit of this truly great film that Jarecki does not overplay the comparison leaving the viewer to decide how close the parallel is. David Simon, creator of ‘The Wire’ and one of the director’s main interviewees calls it a holocaust in slow motion.

Jarecki fills his 108 minutes with many different points about the drug war and very few are repeated but there were two areas that he did not even consider.

There is a substantial segment about the economic benefits of the war on drugs. These include the private companies that now build and operate the  prisons, the communities that benefit from the jobs created and the supply of equipment to law enforcement for catching and controlling drug users and dealers. Though Jarecki notes that some prisons offer rehabilitation programmes and that such programmes are the first casualty of any cost cutting, he does not mention the importance of the prison population to America’s manufacturing base. The low cost labour available in prison means the US can compete against countries more normally associated with poor treatment of the workforce. Some military equipment is only manufactured in prisons and it is said that over a third of the US domestic appliance market is supplied by workers earning 23 cents an hour.

The other area Jarecki only touches on, perhaps because it could justify its own documentary, is the treatment of juveniles who are arrested for drug offences.

The last time I looked at the UK website for the film the Edinburgh screening I attended was the last listed. I was pleased, today, to see that a number of screenings around the UK have been scheduled for 2013. Full details are here.

The credits for ‘The House I live In’ show the BBC as being involved in its production through its ‘Storyville’ documentary strand. I hope this means that, at some stage, this important story will be broadcast but I strongly suggest you go to see it as soon as you possibly can. Though wholly about the USA there is a good degree of read across to the situation in the UK and it makes a mockery of the Prime Minister’s claim that current drug policies are working.

I began by complaining about the amount of dross I was subjected to before the feature started but, driving the 60 miles home, I realised the relevance of one item. Amongst the adverts for alcohol, perfume and supermarket goodies was the trailer for the soon to be released ‘Les Miserables’. At the start of the novel, Hugo’s hero, John Valjean, is freed from prison after serving a long sentence as a result of stealing bread when he was too poor to feed his family. Though free, the stigma of being a criminal stays with Valjean the rest of his life.

I realised, after listening to prisoners serving long sentences after becoming involved in the drugs trade when American manufacturing contracted and they lost their employment, that we haven’t come very far.

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