Lessons on drug policy from Montclair Film screenings (Letter to the Editor)
I am a new resident of Montclair who looked forward to Montclair Film Festival because it gave me multiple evenings of what I love: social justice-focused film and an opportunity to connect with my new neighbors.
Three films stood out for me because they connected closely with my professional commitments: AIDS and drug policy reform. I began my professional career 30 years ago as a social worker and an AIDS activist. “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over” and the interview with Warwick that accompanied it were meaningful reminders of the days when there was no effective treatment, when denial at the highest levels of our government translated into lack of funding for prevention and treatment, and when public advocacy to sound alarms about rising numbers of cases was often risky. I was glad to see Warwick’s role as an early advocate and contributor to amFAR (the Foundation for AIDS research) acknowledged in such loving way.
The 1985 version of “That’s What Friends Are For” has been an anthem of the AIDS movement in the United States since then.
“Prayers for the Stolen” and “Life of Crime 1984-2020” were two films powerfully illustrating the relationship between drug use and production, and poverty, violence, disfranchisement and government abdication responsibility for its citizens. Interestingly, the two films were made on two sides of the same border. “Prayers for the Stolen” is about an impoverished community of mostly women and children growing opium in Mexico. “Life of Crime” is about three residents of Newark struggling with heroin dependence. An easy conclusion from the two films is that “drugs are bad.” And yes, drugs indeed can be bad. But equally bad is the crippling poverty of the protagonists; the acceptance of violence against women; the lack of access to social services including housing, quality drug treatment or harm reduction; the over-reliance on the criminal justice system to solve social problems; and the lack of positive government involvement with the most marginalized communities.
In both films, the state is there to lock you up, to punish and to spray harmful chemicals on your village and crops from the sky.
Last year, 93,331 Americans died of drug overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control. This is the largest number ever. Both of the films showed clearly why this figure will only grow. Drug policy does not yet have the strength of the AIDS movement that is required to shift public opinion, and move policy makers and politicians to end the drug war.
I hope to, in my lifetime, watch a film about how governments regulated the entire drug market or at least decriminalized personal possession, implemented effective social safety nets, increased the number of quality treatment beds, offered services to people outside of treatment, and reduced the number of prison cells. That is what is needed, on both sides of the border, for the number of overdose deaths to decrease.
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