It’s been 50 years since President Nixon declared a War on Drugs. Since then, this nebulous declaration has affected policy, legislation, and other facets of American life while contributing to rising incarceration rates. The War on Drugs has also crossed borders, helping to destabilize entire regions of the world.
In particular, drugs, especially cannabis, have been weaponized against Black and Brown communities, who suffer the highest rates of incarceration and criminalization compared with white people who also interact with the same substances.
A three-part documentary series called The Human Toll was released on March 12. The series, produced by Vanity Fair with PAX Labs, delves into how U.S. drug policy — and, specifically, cannabis prohibition — over the last century has been a driver of racial inequality, unjust incarceration, and devastating harm to communities and people of color.
In part one, leaders from the Last Prisoner Project, Marijuana Policy Project, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, and Brookings Institution uncover the racist origins of the War on Drugs and explain how these dangerous policies, dating as far back as the early 1900s, have shaped the carceral system to this day. Part two discusses collateral consequences, and part three is titled “Getting Out.” The remaining two parts will be released on March 26.
“As a brand in cannabis, we’re deeply committed to driving awareness around the racial injustice of the War on Drugs, so it was great to work with Vanity Fair and the featured advocates to give voice to those impacted and bring these stories to life,” said Laura Fogelman, Senior Director of Communications & Public Affairs at PAX Labs.
“This is not just something that happened in the rear view—there are more than 40,000 people incarcerated today for nonviolent, cannabis-related crimes while our industry remains one of the fastest growing in America. It will take all of us coming together, demanding much needed reforms, to see meaningful change.”
Øcean Vashti Jude, director of The Human Toll
The series is directed by Øcean Vashti Jude, a Black filmmaker and director. She is a native Chicagoan now based in Los Angeles, California with a degree in Film from Columbia College in Chicago—her credits include Prudence, which is about a grieving elderly queer black WW2 that garnered broad acclaim and has screened in over 20 countries and received 8 best short narrative awards. In 2018, she directed a six-part documentary series about the queer voguing scene in Mexico City called House of Mamis, which won a GLAAD award in 2019. Here, she speaks about her work on The Human Toll.
JB: What drew you to The Human Toll project?
ØVJ: The chance to revise the narrative on the War on Drugs — I felt that there was a lot missing from the retellings or explorations of these topics. I wanted this giant issue and historical moment to feel intimate. I wanted to bring the conversation of weed and the collateral consequences closer to home.
What was your vision for telling these stories, particularly Corvain Cooper and Evelyn LaChapelle’s journey?
So often when we talk about institutions and systems that have failed society, we lose sight of the people that have been hurt and displaced. It was beyond important to hear from people who have experienced the racial injustices that the stats bring up in the series. I wanted to make sure that Corvain and Evelyn felt heard and that their story wasn’t going to be watered down or meddled with because they went through some really terrible things, but came out the other side. So I felt the audience needed to experience, even if it was just for a few minutes, what these two brilliant people have gone through.
What did you learn about the War on Drugs and storytelling by making this film?
I think the greatest thing I learned is the true depth of this so-called war. To me, it appeared to be a thing of the past, something that caused chaos in the ’80s, but what I learned is this was a systematic attack on Black people dating back to the beginning of the 2oth century. The other thing that stayed with me is the realization that despite cannabis being freely used in many places, there are thousands upon thousands of people sitting, rotting in jail because they had some weed on them. Hearing the stats really reminded me how powerful the media is, because they aren’t speaking on this. And so, to an entire viewership, it’s as if this war and the people affected by it don’t exist.
Were you able to draw inspiration from your personal life in any way?
I have had brothers in jail, and I have seen how hard it was for them to prosper… I saw how much society criticized them, and broke them down. I wanted to show how there are systems and policies set up to keep people oppressed and in dangerous cycles, and that simply wanting to do better is not enough in many cases.
How have your past works like Prudence, House of Mamis & Life As We Know It informed your approach to this particular project?
My past work has solidified the notion that I am simply in service of the story and the people that inhabit it. Too often people of color are not in control of their narratives. I see the opportunity as a director to help shine a light and place people in their truth, so they can share their stories and heal others in the process.
You champion those who are generally pushed to the side in film and art. What is it about art that brings us together in a way that other avenues miss the mark?
Art and film allow people to digest things without judgment, so that we have a willingness to be more open and communal. Sometimes having one-on-one conversations is too heavy, people feel insecure or attacked. But with film, people can tell their story and feel seen, and then people can also learn and grow without fear. People tend to end up at the same place, which is an understanding.
I’m a San Diego-based freelance journalist who covers cannabis, food and drinks, travel, sex, and other culture topics. In addition to my newsletter about cannabis