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

by Dan Baum

Amendment IV of the Constitution of the United States reads as follows:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendment V adds:

No person deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Smoke and Mirrors demonstrates how thirty years of the War on Drugs have trampled upon these rights. It makes you wonder how posterity will see our time. What were they thinking? The fact that we still have a drug czar, that cops rather than doctors are still in charge of scheduling drugs, that marijuana is still listed as a Schedule I drug, and, most importantly, that people can still have their property taken away by the feds without even being charged with a crime, indicates that despite being two Presidents removed, we are still in the midst of the long national daydream of Ronald Reagan.

Outrage follows outrage in this book until they almost blend together. Could author Dan Baum, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, have organized things better? His is a strictly chronological approach. A person who becomes a factor in the Reagan administration may be introduced at the beginning of the Carter administration--even though their story doesn't continue, or become relevant, until 150 pages later. The Dramatic Personae listed in the beginning of the book is over five pages long. How to keep all of these people straight?

Matters of politics are even more difficult. Forfeiture law? The feds have always confiscated contraband--a slave ship, in olden times, or a robber's gun. But how did this type of civil forfeiture blur with criminal forfeiture--where, say, the illegal profits of a crime boss channeled into legal enterprises were subject to confiscation? It has to do with RICO, the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, of which Bob Blakely had a part, and which passed, I think, in 1970, but I couldn't swear by it. A separate chapter on the subject would have been nice. Perhaps Baum should have taken the David Halberstam approach: mix the chronological with the in-depth; tell us a linear, chronological story, but at certain points digress deeper into specific subjects.

Baum also went to the Newsweek school of writing. He'll begin sections telling us what so-and-so said as he was doing such-and-such. One section begins: "'Don't be silly, Jack,' said Laurie Robinson, cradling the phone between ear and shoulder. 'We'll go ahead without you.'" It's supposed to put you "into the scene" but it comes across as facile. Worse is when Baum tells us what so-and-so thought at such-and-such a time. How does Baum know? Should we trust him? Was there fact checking? "Sorry to bother you, Mr. So-And-So, but we're wondering if, on August 12, 1978, you thought the following sentence..."

It's in the national idiocy over marijuana that the book is especially effective--but, again, a chapter, or several chapters, devoted to the subject would have been helpful. As is, several surprising right-wing reactions to marijuana almost get lost. John Erlichman once cautioned television producers "not to treat marijuana as you would heroin in your programs. That would cause a credibility gap," while a report from the Nixon-sponsored National Commission on Marihuana (sic) and Drug Abuse stated "Our youth cannot understand why society chooses to criminalize a behavior with so little visible ill effect or adverse social impact." How about the National Review coming out in favor of marijuana legalization? Or this argument for legalization from future Drug Czar Bob DuPont: Legalizing home cultivation would make sure that pot smokers "would no longer be in contact with dealers who may offer other illicit items for sale." The times sure have a changed.

As for the gateway theory (marijuana leads to harder drugs), I liked Baum's response to a University of Kentucky study "proving" marijuana causes heroin use:

Like other "gateway drug" theorists, the researchers looked in only one direction, asking heroin users and cocaine users if they first used marijuana and predictably finding that a great many had. They didn't ask, though, whether the addicts had first used alcohol, tobacco, or caffeine--any of which might also be described, under the study's methodology, as the "gateway." More important, the researchers failed to track marijuana smokers on how many graduate to harder drugs. Whenever the question is asked that way, the percentage is in the single digits...

The 1980s are really scary. Matters such as Straight, Inc. (p. 157) and government censorship of drug literature (p. 164) read like the revenge of a crazed June Cleaver. The demolition of Constitutional Law is even more depressing. Illinois vs. Gates, exceptions to the exclusionary rule under the "good faith" argument, the Omnibus Crime Bill of 1984 and seized assets being shared among law enforcement agencies, mandatory minimum sentences: it keeps getting worse. One reads about homes being confiscated from parents whose children smoked pot, and innocent men being killed by federal agents because of mistaken addresses, and it's difficult to believe that this is our country.

In this regard, Smoke and Mirrors is ragingly effective. It has the power to wake us up from the feeling that nothing can be done to the sense that something must be done to stop the War on Drugs. It's such apathy, after all, that is in the end far more harmful to a fruitful life than most of drugs out there.

—September 24, 1997

© 1999 by Erik Lundegaard