Chapter 5

Pop Culture

This essay is a review of:

Smoke and Mirrors

by Dan Baum

Is it Really a War on Drugs?
by Olivia Liu

Dan Baum’s Smoke and Mirrors gives readers insight into the truth behind the infamous “War on Drugs”. This book covers the years 1967 through 1994, encompassing the twenty years in which America declared war on drugs. Baum delves into the various issues plaguing America at the time – politics, corruption, race – instead of focusing solely on the issue of drugs. This book includes actual accounts of events in order to tell the story of the drug wars realistically. In doing so, Baum is able to incorporate the views of people during the time period and not just regurgitate information about drug war politics. He digs deeper when he say “since Nixon’s ‘law and order’ campaign of 1968, the War on Drugs has walked point for a national retreat from handling crime and drug abuse as symptoms of larger problems – racism, exclusion, injustice, and poverty – for which all Americans bear some responsibility. The appeal is obvious.”1

The first quarter of Smoke and Mirrors includes information from 1967 up to 1980. Baum opens up with some background information – the prolonged Vietnam War, the increasing frequency of riots in the streets, the increasing amount of poverty – about events from 1967 through 1968. He includes information on Nixon’s campaign and how he virtually started the War on Drugs that would last for the next 20 some odd years: “Two months before the election, Nixon … [conjured] up a War on Drugs. ‘As I look over the problems in this country, I see one that stands out particularly . . . The problem of narcotics.”2. He built his campaign around drug elimination, a problem that wasn’t even recognized by most people at the time. Nixon had to find ways to make drugs seem like a national problem and galvanize the public. He started by attacking the only drug people seemed to think was harmful: heroin. He conjured false figures in reports he gave – apparently, heroin addicts stole over 2 billion dollars worth of property that year when only 1.3 billion dollars was stolen collectively – to make the problem seem worse than it was. After Nixon’s tenure as president, Jimmy Carter took over but didn’t think that the drug problem warranted that much attention and focused more on foreign affairs.

In the second quarter, Baum covers the first half of the 1980s, from 1980 to 1985. Carter still holds the title of president at this time and the heroin problem has been taken care of with methadone treatments. However, in the beginning of the 1980s, the danger of marijuana was constantly growing. The new horror, it seemed, was marijuana. The War on Drugs even seemed to garner quite a lot of attention from parents: “With America’s Number One Problem Drug identified as the one that teenagers are most likely to use… the War on Drugs became a powerful weapon for parents to use in their struggle with their teenagers.”3. Parents started to become active fighters in the war against drugs. However, many of the drug institutions that popped up in order to aid teens in their recovery from “drug abuse” treated their patients extremely cruelly, restricting meals, beatings during the day, and even restricting access to the outside world. Laws were created to counter the Fourth Amendment. In 1984, it seems that people were starting to realize the dangers of cocaine. It was declared the new public enemy number one.

Baum, in the third quarter of his book, finishes off the rest of the 80s, from 1985 to 1990. Around this time, cocaine started to make headlines. While previously, cocaine seemed to be low risk, people started to realize that cocaine was actually much more dangerous than it seemed. Two other drugs, ecstasy and crack also became known. As it got closer and closer to the election season, more and more bills were passed, even those that were entirely impractical: “Drugs are ‘a threat worse than any nuclear warfare or any chemical warfare waged on any battlefield,’ South Carolina Republican Thomas Hartnett said, sponsoring a measure to force the president to stop all smuggling within forty-five days. Senator Sam Nunn … called it ‘the equivalent of passing a law saying the president shall, by Thanksgiving, devise a cure for the common cold.’ It passed anyway”4. As evidenced by this absurd bill that passed, the nation ceased to think when it came to the issue of drugs. Over a quarter of America’s population was taking some kind of illegal drug at this point, which scaring people with the possibility of more crime. Drugs were even blamed for any sort of homosexual behavior. The possibility that these people were gay previously was shot down immediately. People came up with a new policy: zero tolerance.  

The last quarter of his book includes the few years between the 80s and Baum’s publication of this book. The War on Drugs at this point was very intense. Houses were being raided and people were being killed for even being suspected of growing or harboring any drugs in their homes. The Drug Enforcement Association created a list of possible suspects that could be checked for drugs: everybody. They wiretapped, monitored shipments, and broke into houses – without warrants – to do their job. Oftentimes, the “search warrants” that the police did bring contained false information. However, this War on Drugs “made the criminal justice system one of the top growth industries during the eighties and nineties”5. This, unfortunately, contributed to the police intrusion that everyone was subjected to. Another development during this time was that the issue of drugs became a matter of morals rather than one of health. The morals card was played because people didn’t care about health deterioration any longer. There had already been far too much said for health risks for it to have any effect.  

The author’s thesis, as evident throughout the book, is that the War on Drugs involved much more than just the issue of drugs. He even says that “The War on Drugs is about a lot of things, but only rarely is it really about drugs”6. There were many more issues connected to the issue of drugs that ultimately created the kind of war people were trying to fight. He says that America has failed in its War on Drugs due to a multitude of reasons. The war was extremely costly – millions taxpayer dollars were spent on new police vehicles or uniforms – and destructive, as police broke into houses in search of drugs. Often times, the police would leave a large mess behind and confiscate items seemingly at random. This war was even a failure in that it failed in trying to complete its original mission: destroying drugs completely. Instead of getting rid of drugs, new drugs took hold, such as heroin, marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, and crack. Because of extreme government policies on drug importation, many people turned from the mild marijuana to the extremely addictive cocaine and crack. No matter what the government tried to do, it couldn’t actually fulfill its original mission.

The author has made it clear that this work is one of journalism. He has, over the years, worked for many famous newspapers and has written other books, many of similar genres as Smoke and Mirrors. Dan Baum was a staff writer for The New Yorker and a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Thus, it would have been familiar for him to have researched so much about the topic because of his past: “This is a work of journalism, the product of more than 200 interviews and many hours poring over documents”7. Dan Baum has also written books on guns, Gun Guys: A Road Trip and Citizen Coors: An American Dynasty, covering topics on politics and the rights and wrongs of actions.

Dan Baum released this book in 1996. Thus, it is safe to assume that after a few years to reflect on the situation, he is able to draw logical conclusions that could not have been drawn previously. He was able to draw from his experiences during the actual time period as well as afterward, as he lived through both periods of time. In addition to this, he wrote and published this book during the Clinton administration. Clinton, after beating out all other competition, decided to take a different path than all the presidents before him. He approved of Ridley-Thomas’ plan to focus on more important matters that were plaguing their country: “’Ridley-Thomas said it would go toward bicycle patrols, Spanish lessons for city police officers, and other ‘community policing’ projects, not drug sweeps. ‘The heavy-handed approach…is history’”8. This is one of the reasons Baum wrote and published this book.

Professional responses to Smoke and Mirrors generally agreed regarding the same topics. Both of the critics, David C. Hendrickson and Christopher Lehmann-Haupt have acknowledged that this book had covered the details of the time rather well. However, they also both agree that “The work lacks analytical power of other anti-prohibitionist tracts; nor does Baum address the dilemmas and conundrums associated with legalization”9. Hendrickson addresses a very real problem. Baum advocates for legalization of marijuana in his book several times, saying that it would benefit the nation to do so. However, he doesn’t include anything about the potential dangers of such a process. True, there would be many benefits. However, the potential for negatives also stands tall. Lehmann-Haupt also says that “his technique has certain shortcomings. Because his vignettes are so brief and plentiful, they feel more selective than they probably are and thereby imply a lack of objectivity on the author’s part. The impression of bias this leaves is deepened by the author’s failure to acknowledge any middle ground between the extremes of his cases”10. This is also a true statement. The fact that there are only extreme cases Baum brings into his book doesn’t leave any room for a middle ground.

Baum’s book effectively gets his point across: the nation failed at its War on Drugs because of the less than ideal policies. His message was effective but there was room for improvement. First of all, he did nothing to acknowledge the efforts made by people to stop drug abuse. He blames it on bad government policies – he calls it “government lunacy” – that got America into this mess. He even suggests the legalization of marijuana. That would be fine if he had something to back up his argument. He merely says that such a development would be useful to the people. His sources all seem to be specially picked to support his argument as he conveys his argument effectively, but he doesn’t allow anything to counter his point of view. Additionally, when he addresses the issue where drug abusers were turned away from clinics, Baum doesn’t take into consideration that those clinics might not have the necessary equipment or facilities to aid drug abusers, as it is such a costly treatment. It is also true that the police were brutal to some people but there were also effective drug busts. There’s a reason the DEA was still allowed to function even with all their mishaps. It means that it was working for the most part. While Baum’s argument is strong, he needs to focus on the other side too. Not everything is as black or white as he sees it.  

U.S. policy towards the issue on drugs could have been more truthful. There was constant information fabrication about the issue itself. However, it is true that the impact of drugs wouldn’t have made itself known without such exaggeration. The problem wasn’t one that people even considered a threat at the time so it would have been difficult to have garnered any support for this war. The U.S. did try to restrict the drug trade, as most drugs were imported from other countries, but that only served to make people more desperate. So they turned to other more dangerous drugs. When restricting trade didn’t work, policies became stricter. Some of which included the restriction of the Fourth Amendment, which most Americans actually agreed to, and sentencing someone to time without a trial: “the government could seize a multimillion-dollar yacht if inspectors found a single marijuana seed. That … became national policy”11. Although some measures were taken to help addicts recover, there were too many people and too little slots. It didn’t help that most clinics turned away addicts that needed all the help they could get. Most people who were targeted were black even though most drug abusers were white. America might have made progress in other areas. The War on Drugs was not one of them.

Overall, the War on Drugs was never really solely about drugs. Through this book, Baum is able to effectively make his point and support his argument well with all the sources he used: “Smoke and Mirrors is offered as a map of how we got here, in the hope of suggesting a way back”14.

1.  Baum, Dan. Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1996. xiii.

2.  Baum, Dan. 11.

3.  Baum, Dan. 155.

4.  Baum, Dan. 231.

5.  Baum, Dan. 306.

6.  Dan, Baum. xi.

7.  Dan Baum. Author’s Note.

8.  Baum, Dan. 328.

9.  Hendrickson, David C. Foreign Affairs Vol. 75, No.6. 153.

10.  Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. Books of The Times: From the War on Drugs, Horror Stories and the Case for Peace.

11.  Baum, Dan. xii.

12.  Baum, Dan. 244.

13. Baum, Dan. xiii.