Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure

Overview

For sheer government absurdity, the War on Drugs is hard to beat. After three decades of increasingly punitive policies, illicit drugs are more easily available, drug potencies are greater, drug killings are more common, and drug barons are richer than ever. The War on Drugs costs Washington more than the Commerce, Interior, and State departments combined - and it's the one budget item whose growth is never questioned. A strangled court system, exploding prisons, and wasted lives push the cost beyond measure. ...

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Overview

For sheer government absurdity, the War on Drugs is hard to beat. After three decades of increasingly punitive policies, illicit drugs are more easily available, drug potencies are greater, drug killings are more common, and drug barons are richer than ever. The War on Drugs costs Washington more than the Commerce, Interior, and State departments combined - and it's the one budget item whose growth is never questioned. A strangled court system, exploding prisons, and wasted lives push the cost beyond measure. What began as a flourish of campaign rhetoric in 1968 has grown into a monster. And while nobody claims that the War on Drugs is a success, nobody suggests an alternative. Because to do so, as Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders learned, is political suicide. Dan Baum interviewed more than 175 people - from John Ehrlichman to Janet Reno - to tell the story of how Drug War fever has been escalated; who has benefited along the way; and how the mounting price in dollars, lives, and liberties has been willfully ignored. Smoke and Mirrors takes you right into the offices where each new stage was planned and executed, then takes you to the streets where policies have produced bloody warfare. This is a tale of the nation run amok - in a way the American people are not yet ready to confront.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's 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. June
Library Journal
Since 1968 the federal government has been bent on waging an all-out "War on Drugs." Journalist Baum provides a thorough journalistic examination of the public policy, pointing out the false premises behind Richard Nixon's decision to declare such a war, how vested interests used "smoke and mirrors" to keep the money flowing, how the Supreme Court has weakened Fourth Amendment protections in drug cases, and the policy's ultimate failure. Baum interviewed over 200 individuals who spoke on the recordno anonymous sources are quoted. Using numerous case studies, he shows the negative constitutional and social aspects of the criminal justice system's effort to stem drug abuse in America. While not arguing for legalization, Baum hopes his study will motivate decision makers to devise a more humane and cost-effective drug policy. Highly recommended for most libaries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/96.]Gary D. Barber, SUNY at Fredonia Lib., Silver Creek, N.Y.
Kirkus Reviews
A thoroughly researched attack on America's war on drugs.

Baum, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, traces American drug policy back to the presidency of Richard Nixon, when several eager young aides were given the opportunity to turn their personal contempt for drugs into national policy. Despite several studies that recommended the legalization of marijuana—in 1969 more Americans died per year by falling down stairs than from a drug overdose—Nixon's team declared marijuana public enemy number one. Baum traces a connection between an attack on marijuana use in Vietnam and the sharp increase of heroin use among the soldiers, a habit with far greater consequences once they brought it home. The war on drugs grew with each new president, swelling prison populations and shrinking school budgets, though the number of deaths due to drug use remained low. Baum can scarcely mask his contempt for the methodology used by these early drug czars, and his sarcasm toward Nixon's boys and their successors, the "Bennettistas," is ugly. Baum's scrutiny of the truth behind the drug hysteria, however, is impeccable, and the second half of the book serves as a horrifying catalogue of a bloated policy run amok. Baum details several cases where individuals were murdered in their homes by overzealous police; the investigations had been spurred by rumors. Baum theorizes that Los Angeles millionaire Donald Scott may have been killed because local drug agencies were eager to take over his beautiful ranch. In 1991, 80 percent of people who had property confiscated were never formally charged with a crime. And routine police use of drug-sniffing dogs can also lead to false accusations: The Pittsburgh Press found in 1991 that 96 percent of the US currency in use was tainted with enough cocaine to make the dog respond.

A passionate salvo in the bitter debate over drug policy.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316084468
  • Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
  • Publication date: 9/17/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.12 (h) x 1.00 (d)

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2003

    Super book! Will anger you!

    This is a very interesting book. However, reading it made me very angry at our government and it's lack of attention to the war on drugs. What a waste of the taxpayers money!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2002

    It all started with spin...

    This book was quite infuriating to read. I must say, the author dismantled all of the arguments of the drug war crowd until the only justification left is morality. I, for one, do not find spending tens of millions of tax dollars each year--in order to impose my morality on another person--a prudent use for my hard earned money. I would highly recommend this book, but only if you're prepared to become a political activist--that's what happened to me!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 6, 2001

    The answer is education, not enforcement

    This is a must read for all taxpayers!!! Our government should be held more accountable!

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