Skip to main content

Adrian Grenier: Drug war demonizes people

By Adrian Grenier, Special to CNN
updated 5:08 PM EDT, Fri June 21, 2013
A majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana, according to the Pew Research Center.
A majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana, according to the Pew Research Center.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Adrian Grenier: Drug sellers aren't always shady characters, they're people you know
  • Grenier: Billions wasted imprisoning people, ruining lives for nonviolent drug offenses
  • It's hypocritical, he says. Many of us alter our moods with caffeine, nicotine, wine or a joint
  • Judging, demonizing drug users is wrong, he says. We need sensible drug policies

Editor's note: Adrian Grenier is an actor, director and producer best known for his role in the Emmy-nominated HBO series, "Entourage." He produced a documentary film "How To Make Money Selling Drugs," available on cable's On Demand and iTunes. It opens in select theaters on June 26. Sunday night at 10 ET, watch the CNN Original series "Inside Man," hosted and produced by documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, which profiles the medical marijuana industry.

(CNN) -- What comes to mind when you think of someone who sells drugs? Maybe it's the shady character luring customers on a corner in a 1980s "Just Say No" ad. Or perhaps you think of the guy from your college with scales in his dorm room, measuring out marijuana to sell to his buddies.

If you're the type who thinks the difference between "legal" and "illegal" drugs is arbitrary, you might even think of your local bartender or pharmacist as a dealer.

Whatever it is, chances are the image will be shaped by some degree of moral judgment and fear stoked by our country's more than four decades of waging a failed drug war.

Adrian Grenier
Adrian Grenier

My motivation for producing the documentary "How to Make Money Selling Drugs" was to examine the hypocrisy of the war on drugs. Billions of dollars are wasted targeting, arresting and imprisoning mostly poor people and minority groups, when rates of drug use are about the same across racial lines.

One study by Duke University found that young black people are arrested for drug crimes 10 times as often young whites, even though they use illegal drugs less often.

Equally baffling is that most of us have taken some sort of substance to alter our mood -- be it coffee, nicotine, Ritalin, a cocktail or a joint -- yet we are conditioned to think that people who use and sell certain drugs are not like us.

The war on drugs fuels corruption and violence. With roughly half a million people behind bars in the U.S. for nonviolent drug offenses, drugs are as plentiful and widely used as ever. Yet, people who want treatment can often expect to endure an obstacle course just to get help.

'Inside Man' looks at medical marijuana
Flood of applicants for 'pot czar'
Medical marijuana for a 7-year-old?

Through the process of working on this film, realized I could relate to the subject in many ways. I have loved ones who are users and some who are sellers. From growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1980s, to going to Hollywood, to the brownstone neighborhood where I live in Brooklyn, I've always been in some proximity to drugs and the drug trade. Drugs are all around and nearly impossible to avoid.

There is a devastating toll that comes with losing control of drug use. People I care for deeply suffered serious harm, whether with legal products like alcohol or with illegal drugs that carry the threat of incarceration along with addiction.

The close family members who were in the business of selling drugs, far from being violent or malicious, were selling drugs in imperfect circumstances and out of economic necessity. They are not the kind of criminals our policies make them out to be. They are humane, peaceful and caring members of my community, who have been a positive influence on me and have guided me to find success. Without them, who knows where I would be, if I would have been as lucky.

Read: A father's plea to end the war on drugs

The reality is complicated. This is what makes the story of drugs in our society so compelling. Our political leaders and law enforcement have built up a paradigm of war and fear. Meanwhile, the target of the war is something that is close to, and even arguably part of, every one of us.

As an adult, I moved to a Brooklyn neighborhood where the contractor who worked on my house was afraid to park his car. He asked if I wanted to put bars on my window. Even I found myself looking at the guys on the corner, probably selling drugs, with a certain amount of suspicion.

But the weird thing is I got to know a few of them and they are human beings with interesting personalities, feelings, and loved ones. In the grand scheme, these low-level sellers are small fries and don't belong in prison.

"How to Make Money Selling Drugs" reveals that the real big bucks are made in the law enforcement, drug testing and prison industries. Each year, the U.S. spends more than $51 billion on the local, state and federal level to fund the drug war. This money would be well spent if it effectively protected public safety and health --- but instead it has dismantled families and communities, while reinforcing violence, overdose and illness.

Fortunately, the public is growing more aware. A majority of Americans believe the drug war has failed and support reforms such as decriminalization of marijuana, according to the Pew Research Center.

There is also a growing number of prominent leaders from across the political spectrum, including the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Uruguay and former Mexican president, and organizations like the Drug Policy Alliance, promoting alternative approaches rooted in human rights and science.

I want to make clear that I am not looking to glamorize the drug trade. But it is important to understand that little is to be gained from stigma and demonization. It may sound unconventional -- but if we are to truly tackle the question of how to live with drugs -- be they marijuana, alcohol, cocaine, heroin or anything else -- and have the healthiest possible society, we have to look at all sides of the issue.

Our task is to think critically and explore sensible alternatives to drug war policies, which have essentially resulted in a war on regular people who are far from mythical bogeymen.

Watch: The human toll of Mexico's drug war

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Adrian Grenier.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:34 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT