- 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: 32 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #310,938 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure Paperback – May 5, 1997
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It is a rabbit hole of political tail-chasing which is beautifully summed up in a passage wherein Congress is likened to a pack of wildebeest set into stampede due to a couple of them getting spooked as they try to pass one Omnibus crime bill or other. The reasons for the rampaging beast that is the War on Drugs are laid bare by skillful explanations of the actions of little known but key players in policy circles, police commanders and the often discarded casualties of a legislative monster run amok. This book is detailed enough to hold the attention of those who know the subject at hand but basic enough for the novice. I highly recommend this book for any who are interested in understanding how we have come to this place in our society.
Robert Caro once said that for non-fiction to be read, it has to be written like fiction. This book reads like a story with all of the characters interacting and scheming within the drug war. It gives an extensive history without being dense and un-accessible. Probably every page I have some pithy or well said quote underlined.
1. Baum spends more time talking about how the relationship between state, federal and local governments was modified in the pursuit of drug prohibition. Less time is spent talking about the stretching of tax laws to fit around drug charges.
2. There is no discussion of the way that similar drug prohibition laws in Latin America have caused several governments to nearly collapse. (Similar books, like Gray's "Drug Crazy" actually did just that and his whole book was 120 pages shorter than this book.)
3. The book covers a period of about 20 years, and it does so exhaustively. On the one hand, I thought that that made the book drag on endlessly. But on the other hand, if one really wanted to get an idea of the political controversies of moment at various times, then this book does that very well. Even if reading a blow-by-blow of the political currents of some time was not all that interesting, at least someone got around to documenting them all. The sheer mass of the number of references cited and interviews given by the author demonstrate a yeoman's work.
Good points of the book:
1. This book can be read in many ways. One way is as a case study of how governments can engineer mass hysteria in order to find issues on which elected officials can ride to re-election. Another reading might be as a discussion of public policy (there was a decent amount of data here about how many people were killed owing to drug use, though the author stopped short of a cost-benefit analysis). Lastly, the book could be an example of mass hysteria (something like the Dutch Tulip craze). One gets the impression that even though drug policy worked out the way that it did, there is no reason that it could not have worked out differently.
2. The author was very even-handed. Since the period of time that was under analysis covered several presidencies, the issue was portrayed neither as specifically a Republican issue nor a Democratic one. In fact, the author said at the very beginning of the book that Prohibition could mean very different things to people of very different political persuasions.
3. The book also hinted at the practical problems of choosing policymakers. He gave several very germane examples of the very wrong people making decisions about medical issues (i.e., people who were not trained as physicians).
4. There was a good bit of documentation of people turning the issue into a religious crusade, but no extended discussion of the reasons thereof.
5. I really enjoyed the index, documentation, organization and dramatis peronae.
1. Boring, long winded.
The book can be read out of order without much loss (after all, there are so many names and dates that it is impossible to remember them all).
Overall, this book was worth the secondhand purchase price.
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.