Eugene Jarecki gives a personal spin to a soberly critical analysis of the so-called “war on drugs” in his strong, provocative, unabashedly one-sided documentary. “The House I Live In” treads familiar terrain its chronological account of the federal campaign against drugs over the last four decades, but it begins with a grieving mother’s pain and takes the issue beyond strict health policy by linking it to a broader effort to marginalize certain segments of society. And that’s where its particular power lies.

Jarecki starts his film by alluding to the his own family’s experience of ostracism as Jews fleeing Nazi persecution—which makes him especially sensitive to the mistreatment of any group of people—and the death by overdose of his family’s long-time housekeeper’s son. The personal detail is telling, especially when Nannie Jeter quietly recounts how she believed that devoting so much time to the Jareckis would benefit her children by providing more money for them to live on, but now grieves that being away from them so much probably contributed to her son’s developing the drug habit that took his life.

Traced along with Jeter’s story is the history of the “war on drugs” as a whole, beginning with Richard Nixon and continuing down to the present. Nixon actually turns out to be a fairly enlightened figure in that he acknowledged that treatment as well as punishment was a necessary element of the campaign. But in succeeding administrations, that observation was lost, partially for merely monetary reasons, and the “war” devolved into a simple effort to trap and incarcerate small-time dealers and users—something that boosted police arrest and prosecutorial conviction statistics but, as many observe here, led to increased official corruption and staggering increases in the imprisonment of non-violent offenders. It also promoted the industries of for-profit prisons and makers of security devices and personal protection weapons, which then became a lobbying force to maintain the “war” unaltered.

Still, politicians of both major parties became tireless proponents of the “war” because it had become a convenient, popular symbol of being tough on crime. The passage of legislation setting heavy prison terms for those convicted of drug offenses and tying judges’ hands in terms of sentencing is identified as a particularly noxious element of this political program.

But the most disquieting element of the picture is its argument that the “war on drugs” originated as—and continues to be—a means of singling out, and storehousing away, segments of society that were deemed dangerous or unwanted. The process began in the nineteenth century, Jarecki says; though abuse of drugs often used for medicinal purposes among ordinary citizens was treated as a medical problem, criminalization of opium smoking was used to target “undesirable” Chinese immigrants, many of whom had been brought to the country to work in the construction of railways. The same pattern occurred in the case of drugs perceived as used predominantly by blacks, like cocaine, and marihuana, by Mexicans. And it’s a distinction that has continued in the much higher penalties assessed for the distribution and use of crack, seen as widespread in the black community, as opposed to those for powdered cocaine, more often used by whites, despite the fact that the difference in their effect is nil. It’s a disparity that’s only begun to be redressed in the law—and still only partially.

Jarecki builds his case methodically through his own narration, a mass of archival stills and news footage, clips of drug raids and interviews with historians, sociologists, journalists, police officers, judges, defendants in court cases, prisoners and ordinary citizens, as well as Nannie Jeter. The result is a thought-provoking, compelling documentary that encourages you to look at our national drug policy in a broader context.

The title, incidentally, comes from a depression-era song recorded by Paul Robeson, who’s heard singing it over the end credits.