In the mood for a documentary on Netflix tonight? You can’t do much better than these four examinations of our nation’s drug policy in action, in the past and today. Expect to see much that’s troubling, but expect to be enlightened as well, not just about our nation’s love/hate relationship with substance use, but also about what it means to deal with addiction. No matter your personal relationship with drugs and alcohol, the subject affects us all.
1. “Breaking the Taboo” (2011)
The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population but a quarter of its prisoners, and the majority of them ended up behind bars courtesy of our nation’s decades-old war on drugs. Yet despite this mania for punishment, the U.S. remains the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs. How did we go so wrong, and how can we fix it?
Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Andrade explores these questions in “Breaking the Taboo,” which travels from Nixon’s declaration of drugs as “public enemy No. 1” in 1971 to the 2011 Global Commission on Drug Policy, a think tank of world leaders and intellectuals that started a long-overdue conversation about smarter and more compassionate ways to deal with drug use.
The film turns to experts and political heavyweights such as former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter to make the case for treating addiction medically, not criminally. But with growing criminal distribution networks firmly in place across the globe, international drug cartel violence growing, and a vast prison industry protecting its mission, ending the war on drugs is proving much tougher than starting it.
2. “Ken Burns: Prohibition” (2011)
We’ve come to expect nothing but excellence from Ken Burns’ sprawling documentaries. The filmmaker doesn’t disappoint with his fascinating examination of our nation’s failed 13-year experiment with alcohol prohibition.
The subject has more than a few parallels to today’s attitudes, but the filmmaker resists any temptation to moralize. Instead, he lets the story of the unintended consequences of making substance abuse a crime rather than a health problem speak for itself.
The three-part series begins with “A Nation of Drunkards,” an examination of a time when cider and beer were consumed like water and cheap whiskey began to destroy lives and families. Who could blame those who witnessed the era’s rampant addiction for seeing prohibition as the solution? Eliminate the alcohol, they theorized, and you eliminate the drunkenness — and all the evils that come along with it.
It didn’t turn out that way, of course, as the nation so painfully learned. Instead, we got speakeasys, mass poisonings from bootleg booze and Al Capone — and we became, as Part 3’s title calls us, “A Nation of Hypocrites.”
3. “The Anonymous People” (2013)
We hear with heartbreaking regularity the stories of drug epidemics, relapses and deadly overdoses. But what’s often missing from the conversation are the stories of addiction recovery. Filmmaker Greg Williams, himself a person in recovery (emphasis on person, he explains), sought to change that omission with “The Anonymous People,” a 2013 documentary that follows those working to change our national response to and understanding of addiction as a complex brain disease that can be managed.
Much of the film centers on Faces and Voices of Recovery, a nonprofit group formed in 2001 to bring people with personal stories of overcoming addiction into the public policy debate. The group’s idea is this: If the more than 23 million people who have overcome addiction speak up and claim their success, rather than remaining quiet for fear of stigma, others will realize recovery is possible and be willing to support treatment funding rather than spending an estimated $350 billion a year on “the public wreckage of addiction” — costs such as prisons, courts, healthcare and lost workplace productivity.
The film moves from rallies to community gatherings, Capitol Hill to jails. It includes visits with personalities with their own recovery stories to tell, such as basketball star Chris Herren and actress Kristen Johnston. “This is our black plague,” Johnston says, “and I believe that the embarrassment and secrecy that shroud the disease are just as deadly as the disease itself. I won’t stay silent any longer.”
4. “The House I Live In” (2012)
This Sundance winner goes inside the lives of those caught up in our nation’s war on drugs and comes away with a disturbing conclusion: The policy we’ve adhered to through multiple presidencies has been an utter failure, leading to historic levels of incarceration and destroying whole communities while doing nothing to stem drug use. Drugs, in fact, have never been purer, cheaper or more available.
Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki starts the examination at his own house, reconnecting with the African-American woman who helped raise him and exploring why the lives of her children turned out so differently from his own. He then allows addicted person and their families, corrections officials, law enforcement agents, journalists and policy makers, among others, to have their say. Among them is a judge who shares his distress over the sentencing he is forced to hand down, noting, “Of the 2,600 people I’ve sent to federal prison, I’ve seen three or four kingpins. We are incarcerating poor people who are drug addicts.” Dave Simon, journalist and creator of the TV show “The Wire” has this bleak assessment: “The drug war is a holocaust in slow motion.”
The film offers no easy answers. Rather, it serves as a rallying cry for change and compassion in a system that has seen punishment as the only proper response to addiction. You might not always agree with the filmmaker’s unabashedly left-wing perspective, but it’s a sure bet that no matter your politics, you’ll find plenty to get you thinking.
By Kendal Patterson
Follow Kendal on Twitter at @kendalpatterson