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Smoke and Mirrors | Poem


The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure 
by Dan Baum, published 1996 

Book review by Jodey Bateman

In this book Baum traces the great American anti-drug crusade back to 1969, the first year of the Nixon administration. In that year more Americans died of choking on food than from the effects of illegal drugs. But drugs, which were a relatively minor public health problem, became the object of a massive legal, political and cultural offensive against the phenomena known as "The Sixties" - and this offensive has gone on ever since. 

Many of the voters who supported Nixon - and later Reagan - were outraged by the high crime rate among blacks and equally outraged by black political and social activism in the sixties (even though the activists were not the sort of blacks who were likely to commit crimes.) These voters were unwilling to spend more tax money to lower the black crime rate by ending poverty. They wanted something that would, in their minds, punish blacks collectively. 

The federal government could not attack the sort of crimes that were the object of realistic fears, such as burglary, since these were purely a local matter. However the federal government could go after drugs since they were shipped across state lines. 

White House staffers looked over a sociological study that showed that a high proportion of heroin addicts committed theft. They came to the conclusion that heroin addiction caused theft - for money to maintain the habit. The author of the study protested that this was not indicated by the data. But the government anti-drug wizards insisted - by attacking heroin, we will lower crime in general and (unspoken but understood) since a high proportion of heroin users are black, we will punish all blacks symbolically. 

Voters for Nixon and Reagan were also often outraged by white youth who grew their hair long and protested the Vietnam war (these two actions were often seen as identical). To attack these youth symbolically the government went after Marijuana, which many of them smoked. Marijuana, which has not been shown to cause a single death, was lumped with the far more dangerous heroin and cocaine. All of them were to be considered simply as "drugs", equally bad. The "drug problem" was seen as so severe that it was worth doing away with the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution which prohibits searches and seizures without a warrant. Baum’s book gives many examples of bizarre injustices in drug law enforcement. 

Baum says that the heroin and cocaine problems by themselves would not be enough to justify the huge increase in police powers. 

"Marijuana," he writes, "...is politically the most important illegal drug...without the Marijuana ban, the country’s "drug problem" would be tiny. There wouldn’t be 10 million regular users of illegal drugs in the United States, there would be 2 million." 

In the fall of 1996, not long after Baum’s book was published, the voters of California approved a referendum legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. Baum wrote in the Rolling Stone that this was the biggest victory that the forces opposing the drug war have had so far. 

However, Baum’s book is not yet out of date. Under the Democrat Clinton, more people have gone to prison for drugs than under the Republicans Reagan and Bush. Baum’s book provides many eloquent quotes and statistics for activists against America’s ferocious drug laws.

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