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Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure Paperback – May 5, 1997

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Editorial Reviews Review

In a retrospective look at the war on drugs in the United States, journalist Dan Baum calls the nation's drug policy "as expensive, ineffective, delusional and destructive as government gets." He examines the Nixon White House's effort to turn the drug war to political advantage and the Carter Administration's brief flirtation with decriminalizing marijuana. He also details the cover-ups and blunders of some of the biggest drug busts in the country's history. Yet despite the policy's ineffectiveness, at least 85 percent of Americans oppose legalization. Baum sheds light on the reasons for this issue and calls for radical compromise. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Many sensible analysts have argued the folly of our contradictory and damaging drug policies, but Baum manages to make his argument fresh by tracing what he sees as the escalating missteps and ironies that led us into the "war on drugs."A former Wall Street Journal reporter, Baum weaves a brisk, episodic tale, beginning in the Vietnam era, when the media conflated widespread use of less dangerous marijuana and small-scale use of heroin into a "drug problem" that Richard Nixon exploited. Meanwhile, he contends, the fusion of contradictory schemes-such as the idea of prison sentences that are both long and mandatory-has led to "a prison-filling monster" denounced even by conservatives. According to Baum, Jimmy Carter's drug strategists were the last to offer nuanced policy, but they lost the political fight, and White House drug policy moved from the province of public health to law enforcement. Fighting drugs has made the executive branch look good, and under Ronald Reagan, federal prosecutors expanded hungrily into drug cases. Reagan, taking a page from Nixon and abetted by wife Nancy's "Just Say No" campaign, Baum says, positioned government's role as primarily crime fighting, not attacking the social problems that might underlie drug abuse. The author chillingly portrays how the 1980s Supreme Court, caught up in the hysteria over drugs, weakened the Fourth Amendment's protections against police excesses; equally disturbing to him is how the media accepted the myth of the "crack baby," while prenatal care may mean much more to a baby's health than maternal drug use. Though Baum had hoped the Clinton presidency might adopt a different drug policy, he laments that the law enforcement approach continues. Still, he maintains, a shift from prosecuting pot smokers and "generally peaceful growers" to treating desperate drug dependents "would be an act of medical logic and fiscal genius." The author reminds us of an H.L. Mencken thought: sooner or later, a democracy tells the truth about itself. This book should help it do that.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Age Range: 1 - 17 years
  • Grade Level: 1 and up
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books (May 5, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316084468
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316084468
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #328,993 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

35 of 40 people found the following review helpful By KEVIN M. OCONNOR on March 5, 2000
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Dan Baum, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, starts his history of the Drug War with the Nixon administration, which, in 1968 declared marijuana public enemy #1. That same year, more people died from falling down stairs than from drug overdoses.
From a strictly political point of view, this was a sensible move. It created a threatening enemy out of whole cloth, and this phantom menace allowed Nixon to run a strong "Law and Order" campaign and push the race buttons of white voters. Nothing galvanizes support like the specter of an invasion, and in this case, the invasion would be of middle class, white, America by anti-establishment youth and black culture. The Drug War behemoth was empowered and allowed to run completely out of control when federal and local law enforcement agencies gained the power to seize the property and assets of drug "suspects" without those suspects ever being charged with, much less convicted of, any crime.
Dan Baum's book is thoroughly researched and documented, and he doesn't hide behind smoke screen of feigned objectivity.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By S. Bowman on January 4, 2002
Format: Paperback
The book Smoke and Mirrors is a history of the War on Drugs launched by Richard Nixon and that continues to this day. It is very critical of the War and shows the faults of the War and its negative consequences on American society.
The book does not bash just Republicans and the right wing. In fact Baum makes it clear that Nixon's drug-policy was actually not that bad and certainly better than what was to come. Baum also makes it clear that Democrats jumped on the bandwagon and supported the War on Drugs just as much as the Republicans.
I was for legalization of marijuana before reading Smoke and Mirrors and now I have even more faith in legalizing marijuana. While I was aware of many things Baum mentions, I did not realize how much the Supreme Court has eroded our civil liberities via the War on Drugs. If you want an engrossing read while learning something useful, this is certainly a book to read.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 5, 1997
Format: Paperback
Smoke & Mirrors has less to do with drugs than it does with the true casualties of the long-fought War on Drugs -- the many civil liberties that all of us have lost, especially in the last decade, as federal policy has amassed greater and greater powers in the hands of police and prosecutors to conduct their skirmishes and campaigns and the human consequences of these changes.
Dan Baum deliberately and meticulously delineates each law, court challenge, or policy change that strips away protections that were rightfully placed there by the Constitution and the courts. Baum points out the many rulings and precedents that have taken away rights for individuals only suspected of criminal conduct. Many readers will be shocked to learn that they no longer enjoy some of these rights that we have long taken for granted.
This not a dry book about legal precedence and maneuvers, however; each new onslaught is placed in context by how it affects the people most harmed by them. The names, faces, lives, and families of the persons we have been taught to see as faceless moral failures filling our prisons for such heinous crimes as selling hydroponic equipment to someone who then used it to grow marijuana.
For instance, Baum tells about an African American landscaper named Willie Jones traveling from Nashville to Houston to buy shrubs who made the mistake of buying a plane ticket with cash. That bumped him into a drug courier profile and the ticket agent received a reward for reporting the person to authorities who confiscated his cash. Travelers, fitting drug courier profiles, mostly people of color, can be required with impunity now to undergo X-ray examinations, full cavity searches, and to defecate in buckets upon demand before they are allowed to continue on their journey.
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23 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Jodey Bateman on December 12, 1999
Format: Paperback
In this book Baum traces the great American anti-drug crusade back to 1969, the first year of the Nixon administration. In that year more Americans died of choking on food than from the effects of illegal drugs. But drugs, which were a relatively minor public health problem, became the object of a massive legal, political and cultural offensive against the phenomena known as "The Sixties" - and this offensive has gone on ever since.
Many of the voters who supported Nixon - and later Reagan - were outraged by the high crime rate among blacks and equally outraged by black political and social activism in the sixties (even though the activists were not the sort of blacks who were likely to commit crimes.) These voters were unwilling to spend more tax money to lower the black crime rate by ending poverty. They wanted something that would, in their minds, punish blacks collectively.
The federal government could not attack the sort of crimes that were the object of realistic fears, such as burglary, since these were purely a local matter. However the federal government could go after drugs since they were shipped across state lines.
White House staffers looked over a sociological study that showed that a high proportion of heroin addicts committed theft. They came to the conclusion that heroin addiction caused theft - for money to maintain the habit. The author of the study protested that this was not indicated by the data. But the government anti-drug wizards insisted - by attacking heroin, we will lower crime in general and (unspoken but understood) since a high proportion of heroin users are black, we will punish all blacks symbolically.
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