In short, in the context of this movie, the director gives us a factual and indeed a rather graphic history of the drug war. He does this by following up the descriptive history with a corresponding human history, one in which the life trajectories of several inner city victims is followed. And then by interviewing, in parallel, those on the other side designated to fight the war on drugs at its front lines, the so-call "first responders:" the police, the DEA, the social workers, NARCs, parole officers, and prison guards.
What we learn from this part of the history is what we already have long known but continued to pretend not to know: That after 40 years and one trillion dollars of U.S. tax money, 45 million arrests, and 2.5 million Americans filling up our prisons, the war on drugs is still exactly where it began when President Richard Nixon declared it in 1971.
We learn that, with the exception of the millions of lives of the families that have been destroyed either as a result of the drugs themselves, or more likely from the massive collateral damage of having the family's primary breadwinner in prison for long stretches of time, and the fact that nearly all of U.S. inner cities look like bombed out WW-II air raid damage, there are no positive results have accrued to American culture as a result of the drug war. This lack of any discernable positive results after 40 years of fighting the war, naturally begs the question: Could U.S. society have possibly been any worse off without having fought the war at all?
But this is not the most important message we get from Jarecki's history of the drug war in this film. Here we also learn in relief, that in the end, the drug war fundamentally is not about drugs at all, but is about lots of other societal things that animate American culture: like advancing the development of a new prison-industrial complex; about continuing to promote a broken-down embarrassingly unjust and cruel criminal justice system; about the trillions of dollars pumped into the U.S. economy illegally from illicit drug profits; and most importantly about how the U.S. uses the drug war to further as a shield to further divide U.S. culture into the "good guys" and the "bad guys," the "worthy" and the "unworthy"; into "winners" and "losers," into "job creators" and "slackers;" and as always, into the whites and the non-whites.
The context of the film shows exactly how the battle plans to fight the war have been drawn up by the U.S. government, and generally how the two sides go about prosecuting the war. It is a lose-lose arms race of subterfuge in which each move provokes an unequal counter move -- with no winners and no improvements for U.S. culture in sight for the foreseeable future. Invariably, the only thing that seems to matter in this game of "good guys" versus "bad guys," is that the game must go on; and that it must always be resolved in favor of reinforcing the existing racist social order. IThe other unwritten imperative is that it must remain hidden from assualting the normal sensibilities of American social life.
Thus what we learn from the movie's context is how the history of the "casual use of drugs" got started, and how it then morphed into criminalized social behavior as well as into a blueprint for more easily privatized business enterprises, and then, how this process was inevitably enfolded almost invisibly into cultural "business as usual."
The Subtext of America's Drug War
The questions probed in the background or subtext of the movie are just as interesting and are much more important than the host of disturbing facts and scenes that have just been described and that appear in the foreground or context of the movie. The most important of them is this: Why is it that U.S. society is the carrier of a disease that requires constant anesthetization with drugs?