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
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
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.