The Medical Marijuana Magazine


Journalism and The Politics of Cynicism

Book Review by Richard Cowan

Smoke and Mirrors

The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure

by Dan Baum (Little, Brown 396 pp. $24.95)

This Author's Note at the front of this book begins by saying "This is a work of journalism." Taken on its own terms, Smoke and Mirrors is very successful. Dan Baum sat out to write an anecdotal history of drug prohibition from Nixon through the Bush years, hence the sub-title The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure.

As it documents the growth of the prohibitionist enterprise into a multi-billion dollar octopus, it also stops to tell the stories of both the proponents and the victims of prohibition. This sort of anecdotal break makes the history more difficult to follow, but it makes the story more human, and it is quite clear that our drug warriors are all too human.

In Chapter 15, "Sarajevo on the Potomac -- 1986" he illustrates how detached from reality things had become. "The week of August 18 was an odd one. First, (Supreme Court Justice) William Rehnquist owned up to having been hooked on the sleeping pill Placydyl for nine years. Then thirteen year-old Deanna Young turned in her parents' marijuana stash to the police after listening to an anti-drug lecture.... Deanna was placed in foster care as a ward of the state while her parents faced three years in prison." Rehnquist, who started out as a Nixon drug warrior, is now the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Of course, even that does not touch the level of hypocrisy inherent in Drug Czar William Bennett being on nicotine maintenance while he was crusading against drug addiction. Bennett also said that turning in one's friends to the police is "an act of true loyalty -- of true friendship." If that is not Orwellian enough for you Bennett also said that "The first purpose (of punishing users of illegal drugs) is moral, to exact a price for transgressing the rights of others." Subsequently, Bennett, who was the only major figure in this book that declined to be interviewed by Baum, has become a multi-millionaire by writing books on "virtue."

This book makes very clear that the "War on Drugs" never had anything to do with any real drug problems. However, government programs frequently become tools for politicians to use to get re-elected and bureaucrats to gain more power. Baum does not adequately explain how and why this particular program has metastasized into a threat to constitutional government in America, as well as other democracies.

This was not done just through the cynicism of people like Nixon and Bennett. It is here that the limitations of journalism are evident. In that regard, it is probably for the best that the book says very little about what has happened since the Republicans left office. The Epilogue begins with a 1992 quote from then candidate Bill Clinton: "The definition of insanity is doing the same old thing over and over again and expecting a different result." By his own definition, President Clinton is now insane.

The Clinton Administration has presided over a major escalation in the war on cannabis users. Arrests are at an all time high, and in 1995 Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala hosted the first annual conference on marijuana, which she introduced by lying to everyone present about what the data presented at the conference actually said. It was an amazing performance.

The book's greatest omission is that it does not explain how this escalation continues. For example, it has only a brief reference to the so-called Partnership for a Drug Free America. Baum does not report that it was founded by a former chief executive officer of a major pharmaceutical company, nor does he report their incredible volume of propaganda, over a million dollars a day in free ads from America's "objective" media. The DARE program, founded by former Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates, and costing over two million dollars per day, is not even mentioned.

The fact is that the world continues to be swamped with prohibitionist propaganda from democratic governments such as those in Sweden and France as well as the US. The mass media continue to act as propaganda organs for prohibition. Medicine and science ignore their moral obligations to the public. This book falls short of giving a complete picture of prohibition, but it is must reading for those who missed the middle of the story.