Public Enemy Number One: New Doc Takes on the War on Drugs

Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, sits for an interview.EXPAND
Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, sits for an interview.
Robert Rippberger
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Denver film producer Chris Chiari says it was serendipitous that Public Enemy Number One, his documentary about the War on Drugs and its consequences, became available at roughly the same time media has been flush with images of over-equipped cops beating Black Lives Matter protesters on American streets.

Although the War on Drugs has been going on for fifty years, some of its fallout has been prominently on display for several weeks.

“There’s a clear relationship,” says Chiari. “The correlation between drugs as a political tool for enhanced funding, and then what they use the enhanced funding for.”

Police departments, he says, have long used, under the pretense of fighting the War on Drugs, tools like civil forfeiture to pay for “toys” they wouldn’t otherwise have. The rise of the global war on terror has continued that tradition, with police departments given the military hardware of their dreams, everything from tanks to the sound weapons used to disperse protestors.

The documentary, directed by Robert Rippberger, also shows how politicians, led by President Richard Nixon, started the War on Drugs in the late 1960s as a way to consolidate more law enforcement power, traditionally a state and local matter, into the hands of the federal government.

It’s starting to feel a lot like 1968 again. “Trump is even using the language again,” Chiari says. “'The 'law and order' president?' He’s using Nixon’s script.”

Politicians also lumped marijuana in with much more harmful drugs like heroin as a way to marginalize Nixon’s perceived enemies — namely black folks and people on the left — politically. A person who is convicted of a felony can no longer vote, in many cases. Marijuana has been legalized or at least decriminalized across much of America now, but for decades, thousands of people have received insanely long prison sentences for selling and sometimes just possessing the drug.

“They couldn’t restrict what people said, their freedom of speech,” Chiari says. “So they take something that people commonly put in their mouth and make the act of putting that in their mouth a felony. It restricts someone’s political voice from that point on.”

The result was a country with the highest number of people locked up per capita in the world, most of them black or brown, and cops that look more like they are ready to storm Fallujah rather than hand out parking tickets. Rising NBA star Len Bias’s death of a cocaine overdose in 1986 helped drag the Democratic Party into the fray, so overfunding the police is an issue on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum.

“We're looking at it now through a lens [from] fifty years later, and looking at what's happening with crime — at least our definition of crime,” he says. “We look at what's happened with incarceration, and to say that there is not a racial bias to incarceration, I will not make that statement.”

Chiari is a long time marijuana user — he owns a piece of a Denver dispensary and is unabashedly pro-cannabis — and says he strived to present a balanced view of the War on Drugs and its consequences on American society fifty years out. The documentary includes interviews with addiction specialists; Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws; three former drug czars and several people from the anti-marijuana movement, among others. Rapper and actor Ice-T, who has an executive-producer credit on the film, also sits for an interview. (For the record, Ice-T doesn’t smoke marijuana, as he finds it interferes with his hustle.)

Chiari says the documentary was somewhat inspired by the Netflix documentary 13th, which explores the intersection of race, justice and mass incarceration in the United States. The documentary was named after the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery and involuntary servitude except for punishment for a crime.

“I hope in any meaningful way we can contribute at least a part to this overall dialogue,” he says. “Films like 13th are becoming required viewing to grasp where we are and the types of discussions we need to have to move toward. I’m hopeful we fit into that, and I think we do. It couldn’t be any more timely.”

Public Enemy Number One is available to rent or buy online

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