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