Light Through the Clouds

Thinking about the broader state of the nation, the presidential election left me with a mixed range of emotions. But as one of many working to end the ongoing injustice of America's war on drugs, developments at the state level around the country gave me renewed hope.

The high point of my night was surely watching Karl Rove awaken to the reality that his manipulative grip on the American political process might actually be weakening -- that even all the Citizens United money in the world couldn't put the humpty dumpty candidacy of Mitt Romney back together again. While I have been a critic of President Obama on a range of issues since his 2008 candidacy, I recognize that his tenure, whatever its shortcomings, reflects the high hope that in terms no less than America's highest office, there's been a glimmer of progress in our long and tortured history of race. Last Tuesday confirmed that a majority of Americans have perhaps entered a post-racial era, choosing Obama not simply because he was "anybody but Bush" or because he was a fresh face and a soaring orator, but because, having watched him work and go grey in the process, they felt he was simply the better man for the job.

My enjoyment of all this was tempered, though, by a certain melancholy at watching the Obama family bask in the victory. Glowing like sunbeams amid the swirling clouds of confetti, they seemed to symbolize how the better angels in America's nature have become obscured by the vitriolic discord of our political process. Whatever one's politics, it's hard not to recognize that a first family of such obvious decency, grace, and warmth would in any civilized country be feted as a symbol of a nation fulfilling a long overdue promise. But in today's America, where the politics of destruction has become the destruction of politics, the Obamas have instead been derided, maligned, and taken for granted by a wide cross-section of the electorate.

Despite this bittersweet backdrop, election night was a moment of great promise for justice in America. In my new film The House I Live In, I examine the destructive impact that America's drug war and our system of mass incarceration have had on poor Americans over the past forty years, especially Americans of color. While this election reveals how deeply divided the nation remains on matters of race, three key victories do give me hope that, at least in terms of our deeply misguided criminal justice system, some measures of decency and reform are on the march -- however softly -- in this weary world.

In Colorado and Washington, Amendment 64 and I-502, respectively, were passed to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana, while Massachusetts voted to legalize medical marijuana. My interest in legalization combines a desire to help those who need it receive the palliative benefits of medical marijuana and, equally importantly, to reduce the terribly destructive impact that Marijuana arrests have on nonviolent people and communities every day. It has long been argued by drug warriors that Marijuana is a gateway drug, i.e. a precursor drug to harder drugs. I have not seen persuasive evidence of this, but I would offer that Marijuana is clearly a gateway drug for thousands of nonviolent people, often young people, through which they enter the vicious cycle of America's criminal justice system, a fate from which they seldom return. So the victories in Colorado, Washington, and Massachusetts are clearly positive steps forward.

Most significant of all, though, was the passage of Prop 36 in California, an unprecedented piece of legislation reducing the severity of California's notorious Three Strikes Law. Passed by a staggering 68 percent of voters, Prop 36 amends the law so that in order to receive a life sentence in California, a defendant's third strike must be serious or violent. There are currently over 3,000 inmates in California with life sentences whose third strike was petty or non-serious, such as stealing a pair of socks, denture cream, or, famously, a slice of pizza. Not only does Prop 36 promise greater justice for those charged with a third strike in the future, it compels the courts to revisit and reconsider the sentences faced by those already behind bars.

For most of the past year, I have traveled around the country with my film to support Prop 36 and other state initiatives that I hope can help undo America's decades-long regime of deeply misguided drug control policy. My team and I have used the film as a gathering and awareness-raising tool for these initiatives -- a force multiplier for advocates on the ground - the long distance runners for justice who have worked for decades to reform our broken system.

I am proud to have contributed in even the smallest way to the passage of I-502 in Washington and Amendment 64 in Colorado, rejecting decades of failed prohibitionist policies and legalizing marijuana in a manner comparable to alcohol, including clauses that make it a crime to operate a vehicle while under the influence of the drug. And I am of course thrilled to see California so overwhelmingly pass Prop 36, a first step for the state and by extension the nation toward a policy that is just, humane, and, for those concerned with state budgets, represents an estimated savings of $100 million per year.

Given President Obama's frustrating track record of exerting tremendous federal pressure on states trying to adopt saner drug policies, it remains to be seen how a second Obama administration will respond to such further state movement toward legalization. Yet, however this plays out, such measures, passed at the local level by concerned Americans, are vital steps on a long road toward an end to the Drug War's senseless waste of American life and treasure.

The House I Live in is now in theaters. See the official site for locations: and also follow us on Twitter @DrugWarMovie