The term "war on drugs" was coined by Richard Nixon more than four decades ago, and Eugene Jarecki's searing documentary-slash-essay takes a clear-eyed look at the economic and social costs of this so-called war.
Jarecki weaves personal stories together with numbers and interviews with offenders, jailers, judges, cops, academics and families caught up in the ripple effects. Throughout the film, David Simon, a former police reporter who made his street-level study of the drug war the basis for his HBO series The Wire, offers an underscoring refrain about the systemic failure of the war.
In simple terms, a lot of money and effort is spent, without much decline in drug use or availability. What has happened is that cops and courts have processed hundreds of thousands of non-violent drug offenders, and a sprawling prison-industrial complex has grown up to support it. And social and economic costs on a family and the surrounding community can be devastating.
Some of the historical information Jarecki presents is fascinating, such as how Nixon's original war focused on treatment and rehabilitation, or how each new drug is greeted with both hysteria and a media-driven association with a particular demographic (mostly racial). It's a worthy and fascinating film, though, sadly, not very hopeful.