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

    Dan Baum
        Little, Brown and Company 1996, ISBN 0-316-08412-3

      A Review by Paul Wolf

In Smoke and Mirrors, Dan Baum's hard-charging prose breaks rank with conventional reporting to recount one of the biggest stories of our time—the story of the War on Drugs. This book spotlights the great actors on this greatest of all political stages—Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Ed Meese, Bill Bennett, Rudy Giuliani—truly an all-star cast. One by one, the heavyweights step up to the plate, each one aiming for the bleachers, each one striking a blow at our civil liberties.

Smoke and Mirrors is a book about a period in American history, the product of years of research and hundreds of interviews. Events are presented in chronological order, making it an excellent reference, but the story is so fast-paced it reads like an episode of the TV series "COPS." A scholarly forty pages of footnotes are given at the end, but the reader isn't distracted by them. What remains is an insider's view of Washington politics and a clear perspective on how we got into this mess.

Are we winning the war on drugs? Smoke and Mirrors makes it painfully clear that the "war on drugs" has been the domestic Vietnam of the eighties and nineties, a monster made to serve almost everybody at one time or another. But as Smoke and Mirrors calls loudly for an end to the war, it also warns against the real dangers of drug addiction, which are brought out in anecdotes along the way.

Is America ready to read about this? Maybe, maybe not, but in years to come, Smoke and Mirrors will find its place. Historians will critically review this book—all I can do is summarize and recommend it.

"[President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to."
                              —H R Haldeman to his diary

It should come as no surprise that the war on drugs was the creation of Richard Nixon. Smoke and Mirrors reveals Richard Nixon's War on Drugs to be largely a response to the anti-war and civil rights movements. Although in Nixon's day, the drug war was merely a police action, his administration defined a public policy on drug abuse that is still with us today.

Nixon can be credited with many "firsts." Richard Nixon gave birth to the DEA, appointed the first "drug czar" to coordinate an alphabet soup of enforcement agencies, and commissioned the first study on drug abuse (which recommended decriminalizing marijuana, much to his dismay). Random urine testing for drugs was first introduced as an instrument of public policy, as a response to widespread drug abuse by soldiers in Vietnam. The CIA's guns for drugs scheme involving heroin in Laos forshadowed Ollie North's scandal in Nicaragua twenty years later.

At home, the hippies were calling for an end to the war in Vietnam, and Nixon wanted to break up their anti-war demonstrations. Baum points out that the connection between marijuana and anti-war activism has been overstated, and that a poll showed only 25% of college students had even tried marijuana. Nixon wrote privately that "They aren't as radical as most assume." But the connection was strong enough for Nixon to break up the demonstrations by raiding them with his DEA agents. Consider this conversation between the president of the United States and the King of Rock and Roll:

"You know," Nixon said, " those who use drugs are the protesters. You know, the ones who get caught up in dissent and violence. They're the same group of people."

"Mr. President," Elvis said, "I'm on your side. I want to be helpful. And I want to help get people to respect the flag because that's getting lost." Then Elvis got to the point. "Mr. President, can you get me a badge from the Narcotics Bureau?"

Presley was a collector of police badges. And he was a dopehound of legendary excess. ... And so it came to pass that on the day Elvis Presley died of a drug overdose in 1977, he was a credentialed Special Assistant in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

With the election of Jimmy Carter, Nixon's cold war rhetoric fizzled out. So too with his War on Drugs. Keith Stroup's National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws was fighting to legalize pot, and had convinced eleven states to decriminalize the possession of it. Keith Stroup even wrote a part of one of President Carter's speeches, calling for a reduction in the penalties for marijuana possession. At one time, the president, his drug czar, the head of NIDA, and the American Bar Association all advocated decriminalizing marijuana. "Truely the kingdom of heaven was at hand" for the legalizers—or so it seemed.

Carter would be disgraced by his staff. His drug czar, Peter Bourne, made an appearance at a NORML Christmas party in 1978, enjoying some cocaine while he was there. Bourne further embarrassed Carter when he was caught writing a prescription for sleeping pills for one of his staff under a fraudulent name. White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan was allegedly seen snorting coke at the chic Studio 54 club in New York, and when another story broke that Bourne had prescribed an "obesity drug" for Jordan two years before, it looked like our government was being run by a bunch of dopers.

At the same time, parents around the country were becoming alarmed by the drug paraphrenalia marketed to their kids in record stores—bongs, roach clips, even spoons and scales for cocaine. Another Keith—Marsha "Keith" Schuchard, developed her "Nosy Parents Association" into a lobby of over a thousand organizations, and from this point on, parental fear of teenage drug use would take center stage.

"Let's go around the table," Reagan would say, pointing to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. "Cap? What are you doing for the war on drugs? And Malcolm?"—Labor Secretary Malcolm Baldridge—"what about you?" Soon every cabinet secretary—John Block at Agriculture, Andrew Lewis at Transportation, even the star-crossed James Watt at Interior—knew he had to have an answer ready when the president of the United States asked about his and his wife's national crusade against drugs.
The Reagans' powerful rhetoric propelled the country into an all-out crusade. The government's mantra became "Just Say No" and "Zero Tolerance;" the ideal became that of a drug-free America. No more was the problem either heroin, cocaine, or marijuana—the problem was "drugs." More than one official urged libraries to purge themselves of "outdated" books about drugs—for example, books which distinguished drug use from drug abuse, or books that used the word "social" in reference to the use of illegal drugs. Drug abuse was wrong.

Meanwhile, the "epidemic" of drug addiction remained at roughly the same level it had all along. Baum puts the numbers on the table for us: in 1969, for example, 1601 Americans died from legal and illegal drugs. However, 1824 people died falling down stairs, and 2641 people choked to death on food. NIDA reports similar numbers of drug-related deaths today.

But the media kept rolling along with the rhetoric. In 1985, a new horror captured the imagination of America—"crack." Television crews filmed infants suffering from heroin withdrawal, and called them "crack babies." America forgot about the white potheads, and became absorbed with inner-city "crackheads."

Until now, the typical coke user had been white, rich, attractive, and ultimately tragic. Now, almost all of those shown snorting or smoking cocaine were either black or Hispanic. Cocaine users were no longer tragic, but menacing, and their neighborhoods were 'like a domestic Vietnam.' No dispatch from the 'front lines of the Drug War' was complete without a picture of a white cop arresting a dark-skinned crackhead. The switch may have been one of simple opportunity; it's easier to film black people doing drugs on the street than white people doing drugs in their homes.
While Nixon had gone after the drug users, Reagan waged war on the dealers. He needed more federal police power for that. Reagan was able to press the FBI into service, something presidents Johnson and Nixon had been unable to do. This was after the death of J. Edgar Hoover, who knew the enormous potential for police corruption by the narcotics trade, and had protected his agency from that duty during the sixty years that he led it.

Congress took the ball and ran. One politician after another "piled on" to try to outdo each other in their anti-drug extremism, like sharks in a feeding frenzy, and this culminated in the Omnibus Crime Bill of 1984. This bill appropriated vast sums of money and instituted emergency measures—mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, preventive detention (no bail) for drug suspects, and a market-driven approach to law-enforcement through confiscation of suspects' assets. October 11th, the day of its passage, may well have been the "D-Day" in the War on Drugs.

As Reagan and his Congress were turning the drug war into an inquisition, the Supreme Court was blessing its crusaders with extraordinary new powers. First among them was the broad application of RICO—the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act—to drug dealing cases, and the blurring of civil and criminal forfeiture into a single method by which law enforcement agencies could take away someone's home without even filing any charges against them. Police departments were allowed to sell these assets and keep the proceeds. The forfeiture business eventually became so lucrative that law-enforcement agencies dropped practically everything else and went scrambling after boats and homes.

The hundred-year-old Possee Comitatus Act, which had forbid the use of the military in civilian law-enforcement, was suspended. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger advised that, "Reliance on military forces to accomplish civilian tasks is detrimental to both military readiness and democratic process." Others would would use stronger words; that using the military for civilian law-enforcement constitutes martial law.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing us freedom from unwarranted search, was finally rejected. Customs instituted "involuntary indefinite incommunicado detentions," requiring international travelers to defecate into a bag upon demand. The exclusionary rule, which had required that evidence be obtained by legal means, no longer applied as long as the police acted in "good faith" to solve a crime. Probable cause was no longer needed to search people; drug courier profiles, such as "belonging to a minority group associated with the drug trade," were sufficient. Anonymous informants and tips could now be used to obtain search warrants, inviting people to use law-enforcement as a weapon against their enemies.

"This is a Class A Search," the captain in charge told his men. "That means carpets up, drywall down. Level it. Make it uninhabitable." The policemen followed orders, smashing furniture and walls with sledgehammers, ripping an outside stairway away from the building, and spray-painting "LAPD Rules" on the walls. ... No gang members, guns, or crack caches were found.
George Bush advanced the War on Drugs even further when he hired William Bennett, who is described by Baum as "exquisitely articulate." Bill Bennett saw drug use as symptomatic of a wider decay in social values, values which were universal. It was the duty of government to define, promote, and finally enforce these values. Dissenting opinions were dismissed as "moral relativism." Bill Bennett was to become the great apologizer for the authoritarian measures which were being implemented.

Baum summarizes Bennett's argument to be that "marijuana, heroin, and cocaine are immoral because they are illegal. Why are they illegal? Because they are immoral." Bennett denied there could be root causes for crime and poverty—that theory was just weak-kneed socialism from the sixties. You are the master of your fate, the captain of your soul, and you have only yourself to blame for your pathetic state of being. One more thing—if you break the law, you deserve what you get.

And hundreds of thousands got just what Bennett said they deserved. The new powers granted to law-enforcement agencies were filling our jails and overloading our courts. Night courts were hastily set up. Special preventive detention centers were built. And some people were not even entitled to a trial.

Although not a new practice, "civil commitment" was being used to incarcerate drug users without trial. Since drug abuse was classified as a disease, users were ill and incompetent to make their own decisions. They could be "committed" to treatment programs, much as the mentally ill are committed to mental institutions. No medical diagnosis was required, only evidence of drug use. Civil commitment was said to be compassionate; sometimes love had to be "tough."

They drove to an unmarked warehouse in an industrial part of town. Karen had no idea where she was. "You are in a Straight, Incorporated, drug rehab," said one of the four girls who joined her in a windowless room. Karen was amazed.

Karen's daily routine at Straight went like this: beginning at six o'clock in the morning, Karen and the others spent twelve to eighteen hours sitting erect on the hard chairs in the windowless warehouse. Children who used the back of a chair for support would be "restrained"—others would grab them and hold them against the floor. Children were forbidden to speak to each other or even to make eye contact. They wrote countless "moral inventories" and then stood in turn to denounce themselves and each other for drug abuse and whatever other depravities they could conjure up.

Karen wasn't allowed to go anywhere, even to the bathroom, without "oldcomers" holding on to her belt loop. For three months, Karen told the court, she was unable to move her bowels because she was never left alone ... [and] being unable to move her bowels in others' presence, she had all but stopped eating. Most nights, Karen got only a few hours sleep. Eventually, Karen was allowed to attend the nearby high school, but was always in the company of an "oldcomer," even in the bathroom, an arrangement the high school accommodated.

Finally, six months after her eighteenth birthday, Karen slipped out of school and made it to a payphone. She called the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) and was connected with someone who believed her. An HRS official picked Karen up at school, drove her to Straight, and witnessed her sign herself out. Eighteen months after being imprisoned for a drug problem she didn't agree she had, Karen Norton was free.

Today, the war on drugs is waged by a real general, who calls for further consolidation of federal police power. The supply of drugs will remain constant no matter how many dealers we send to prison—history proves this. The New York Times is asking "Who is Winning the War Against Drugs?" After reading Smoke and Mirrors, I think we're all losing.

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