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

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

Dan Baum. Little Brown and Company, $24.95 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-316-08412-3

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)