June 12, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Robert Rippberger
Culture Representation: The documentary “Public Enemy Number One” takes a historical look at the “war on drugs” the United States, by interviewing several experts and commentators (who are mostly white male Americans), such activists, authors and past and present law enforcement.
Culture Clash: The documentary takes the position that the war on drugs has been an abysmal failure and that U.S. drug laws need major reforms.
Culture Audience: “Public Enemy Number One” will appeal primarily to people who believe that certain drugs (such as marijuana) should be decriminalized, but the movie also should be informative to people who aren’t aware of the long-term social impact of the war on drugs.
Several documentaries have been made in the 21st century about the U.S. government’s “war on drugs” and almost all of these documentaries come to the same conclusion: The war has failed and is a reflection of the racial inequality in the criminal justice system. Most people who buy and sell drugs in the United States are white, but most people who are in U.S. prisons (whose numbers are growing) on drug charges are black and Latino. “Public Enemy Number One” (directed by Robert Rippberger) takes a chronological look at how various U.S. presidential administrations handled the war on drugs, beginning with the administration of Richard Nixon to the administration of Barack Obama. There really isn’t anything new uncovered in “Public Enemy Number One,” but the documentary might be informative to a lot of people who are unaware of these issues.
“Public Enemy Number One” follows the traditional documentary format of mixing archival footage with new interviews. The movie has a clear agenda to advocate for decriminalization of certain drugs (particularly marijuana) and aims to shine a light on how the prison system has become a big business that relies on racism to thrive. (Ava DuVernay’s Emmy-winning 2016 Netflix documentary “13th” extensively covers this topic of racial inequality in the American criminal justice system.)
The Nixon administration was the first to formally declare a “war on drugs,” with Nixon’s notorious 1971 speech that drug abuse was “public enemy number one” for America. It was a way for the federal government to create a new law enforcement agency—the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which on the surface was supposed to enforce the illegal drug trade.
Drug Police Alliance founder Ethan Nadlemann says that the DEA was really just the Nixon administration’s way of trying to control civil unrest over the Vietnam War and race inequality, because the DEA disproportionately targeted black people and radical protesters of the war for arrests. Dan Baum, author of “Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure,” says in the documentary that the late John Ehrlichman, who was Nixon’s counsel and Assistant to the President for domestic Affairs, admitted this government targeting in a 1993 interview that Baum did with Ehrlichman.
Baum comments that the DEA is “half-law enforcement, half-Hollywood. They go out Elliott Ness-ing around the country and making sure that the cameras are there.” The arrests of black people and left-wing radicals during the Nixon administration were done for a show for the media. Those media images and reports then created negative stereotypes that radical left-wingers and black people were mainly responsible for the drug problem in the United States.
Dr. Robert Dupont, who was the U.S. Drug Czar from 1973 to 1977, says in the documentary that he was told he would be fired if he ever went against Nixon’s anti-marijuana agenda. Jack Cole, co-founder of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, remembers his days as an undercover agent in New Jersey, where he would bust small-time drug users who used drugs in small friend groups. Cole says that the biggest mistake that the government made back then was to classify all illegal drugs as the same.
It was during the Nixon administration that National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) was formed in 1970. Most of the members were white people with professional jobs (such as lawyers), thereby contradicting the media’s untrue stereotype at the time that most marijuana advocates were radical hippie types. The main goals of NORML were to decriminalize or legalize marijuana in all 50 states, and not put marijuana in the same category as drugs such as heroin or cocaine. NORML founder Keith Stroup says in the documentary: “We thought we would be finished [with our goals] within five years of 1978.”
After Nixon was impeached and resigned in disgrace in 1974, U.S. culture during the rest of the 1970s (under the administrations of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter) had a more relaxed and accepting attitude toward illegal drug use, particularly marijuana. The 1978 Cheech and Chong marijuana stoner movie “Up in Smoke” is named as an example of a mainstream movie that couldn’t have been made before the 1970s.
NORML founder Stroup admits that during the late 1970s, NORML took a hit in its credibility when Stroup began feuding with Dr. Peter Bourne (who was U.S. Drug Czar from 1977 to 1978) over paraquat, a toxic chemical that is mostly used as an herbicide. NORML accused the U.S. government and the Florida state government of deliberately spraying paraquat over marijuana plants, in order to poison marijuana users. The conspiracy theory was later debunked, and Stroup admits in the documentary that he was wrong. Bourne comments on the paraquat controversy: “I believe it was blatant nonsense.”
The U.S. administration eras of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush marked a return to stricter drug laws and less tolerant views on drugs in society. Nancy Reagan made the “Just Say No” campaign famous. More parents groups were formed as lobbyists to government to make stricter drug laws. The shocking cocaine-related death of rising basketball star Len Bias in 1986 is also mentioned in the documentary as an important milestone in American society’s backlash against illegal drugs during the 1980s. And, of course, the epidemic of crack cocaine began in the ’80s, destroying many families and communities.
Rapper/actor Ice-T (who is an executive producer of “Public Enemy Number One”) explains why drugs and poverty are intertwined in so many African American communities: “It all starts off with no hope, lack of education, not being able to actually enter the system.” He adds that many people in these communities think, “‘I can’t make a living wage, but over here is a way.’ And you try to do that, and you end up in prison or with your life devastated.”
Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Action Partnership, also attributes the increase in drug-related arrests in the 1980s to another factor: more money for law enforcement. Franklin says, “That’s why so many cops liked Ronald Reagan—because we got raises.” Franklin and others in the documentary point out that illegal drugs are the only type of crime in the U.S. were police officers get paid extra for arrests.
The Bill Clinton administration of the 1990s gets heavy criticism for implementing mandatory minimum sentences (also known as the “three strikes” law), where the punishments often don’t fit the crimes. Mandatory minimum sentences are usually cited as one of the biggest examples of why the war on drugs has failed. Nadlemann calls mandatory minimum sentences “McCarthyism on steroids.” In recent years, Clinton has admitted that the mandatory minimum sentencing law was a mistake.
People interviewed on the judicial side say the war on drugs has failed because of agendas and ambitions of government politicians. James Gray, a former California Supreme Court judge, calls the war on drugs: “Great politics, lousy government.” Gerry Goldstein, a U.S. Supreme Court trial attorney, says there’s little incentive to change most drug laws if the general public thinks these laws are working. “Politicians want to get re-elected, plain and simple.”
The 2000s (when the George W. Bush administration was in power for most of the decade) saw the continued rise of the U.S. prison population, due in large part to mandatory minimum sentences. Prisoners are essentially used as little more than slave labor. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition founder Cole doesn’t mince words: “The war on drugs is the new Jim Crow. It’s aimed at controlling black folks … and making money off of it.”
That doesn’t mean that all people in prison are innocent and don’t deserve to be there, say the experts in the documentary. It means that black people, more than any other racial group in America, tend to get arrested and punished more harshly for the same crimes that other racial groups also commit, according to Perry Tarrant of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement. Ice -T comments, “There’s a lot of money being spent to not solve the problem.”
“The easiest way for people to understand the absurdity of the war on drugs is to focus on marijuana,” says Nadlemann. Under the Obama administration, more states began to legalize marijuana. The Obama administration also made attempts to lower federal sentences for crimes involving marijuana. Because “Public Enemy Number One” only covers the war on drugs up until the Obama administration, the documentary unfortunately looks very dated.
However, the documentary does a good job of presenting both sides of the issue, by including viewpoints of anti-drug activists Those who are interviewed are “Parents, Peers and Pot” author Marsha “Keith” Schuchard; Parents/Pride Movement founder Thomas Gleaton; Dr. Howard Samuels of The Hills Treatment Center; Smart Approaches to Marijuana founder Kevin Sabet; and Ian McDonald, U.S. Drug Czar from 1987 to 1988, who says, “Marijuana’s risks and dangers were being ignored.”
“Public Enemy Number One” packs in a lot of information in its total running time of 70 minutes. People who’ve seen similar documentaries or news reports about the war on drugs probably won’t learn anything new. But for people who don’t know anything about this aspect of the U.S. criminal justice system, this documentary is a good place to start without having to make a big time commitment.
Gravitas Ventures released “Public Enemy Number One” on digital and VOD on June 12, 2020.