Skip to main content

Adrian Grenier: Drug war demonizes people

By Adrian Grenier, Special to CNN
June 21, 2013 -- Updated 2108 GMT (0508 HKT)
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
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT