The House I Live In

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

5 December

Prohibition ends, 1933

On this day in 1933, the USA ended one of its most disastrous experiments. The Volstead Act, or National Prohibition Act, had been passed on 28 October 1919. It banned “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States…” It had required a change in the US Constitution to get the act passed, which the Congress had finally done on 16 January 1919, when it ratified the 18th Amendment. On 17 January 1920, America went dry. Except it didn’t. What happened instead is that the law was widely flouted, especially in cities, where a blind eye was turned to infractions. Alcohol consumption went down in the country as a whole – which pleased those who saw booze as a scourge – but up in urban areas. Huge amounts of smuggling took place, and fortunes were made. Home brewing was still allowed and it thrived, as did drinking in places deemed to be offshore. Eventually a campaign against Prohibition started up, and it looked very much like the campaign for it, with worthies from old families (Rockefeller, Du Pont) and religious organisations spearheading the movement. And similarly it was when women’s groups, in the shape of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, swung behind the Anti movement that things started to move. Key among the concerns of those who were against Prohibition was not a love of alcohol – in fact John D Rockefeller was a non-drinker – it was that the Law itself was falling into disrepute. In 1932 Franklin Roosevelt ran for office, a plank of his campaign being a repeal of the law. On his election Roosevelt set about the drafting of the 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th Amendment, using the expertise of former Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer to get the Amendment through state conventions (it’s the only Amendment to be ratified in this way), expertise gained by introducing Prohibition in the first place. The lawyers always win, so they say.

The House I Live In (2012, dir: Eugene Jarecki)

Eugene Jarecki’s entirely opinionated documentary tells the story of another form of Prohibition, of the War on Drugs which has been waged since President Nixon first announced it back in 1971. It has cost the USA more than $1 trillion since it was started and in that time illegal drug use has remained entirely unchanged. “What drugs haven’t destroyed, the war against drugs has,” says David Simon (creator of The Wire, former journalist) who sums up Jarecki’s whole stance in one neat pithy sentence. Jarecki uses Simon quite a lot, partly because he is so pithy, but also because he is clearly angry at the sheer stupidity and waste – sending people to prison for getting high, in a country that constitutionally guarantees your right to happiness by any means you choose, that’s got to be wrong. Simon’s presence also allows Jarecki to take a sober, unsensational approach, which really helps in his historical round-up of attitudes to drug-taking. Even if you don’t entirely buy his thesis that laws against drug-taking have historically been laws against ethnic groups (opium because it was associated with the Chinese, cocaine because associated with Negros, hemp because associated with Mexicans), Jarecki makes it clear when he’s laying out facts and when he’s editorialising. And some of the facts are astounding – that five grams of crack cocaine gets you the same sentence as 500 grams of powder cocaine (the former used predominately by blacks, the latter by whites). We meet one guy who, thanks to the “three strikes” of President Reagan, is doing life without parole for possessing 3oz of methamphetamine – “I fucked up, but I don’t think I should die for it,” he opines. Jarecki then goes one stage further, into the whole idea of prison as an industry, an industry which deliberately sites its new facilities in dirt-poor towns, gets the town to buy the land, then pays the town rent to stay there – thus making the town a beneficiary of ever-increasing prison populations. Who needs to lobby Congress when people all over the country will do it for you? Jarecki’s overriding message is clear: as with the Prohibition against alcohol, at some point a bad decision has been taken, and now so many people are locked into supporting it that it’s almost impossible to undo. “The drug war is a holocaust in slow motion,” says David Simon. “Kill the poor… that’s what the war on drugs has become.” You don’t get clearer than that.

Why Watch?

  • Another essential documentary by Eugene Jarecki
  • Full of the sort of facts you need to know if you’re on his side
  • A brilliant example of telling a story using human interest
  • Highly and unashamedly political

The House I Live In – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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