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  Of Human Bondage

    John Leonard

        A Review of Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure.
        By Don Baum. Back Bay. 396 pp. Paper $13.95.
        This review is excerpted from The Nation, June 16, 1997

It's a funny war when the "enemy" is entitled to due process of law and a fair trial. By the way, I'm in favor of due process. But it kind of slows things down.
— William Bennett       


    See the Great Moralizer, fresh from the $700-a-week therapeutic farm to which he'd resorted to kick his daily two-packs habit, cracking his sunflower seeds, wadding his nicotine gum, blowing out smog through the holes in his head, before he decides instead to blame Hollywood and Geraldo for our shortfall from virtue. Bennett didn't start the "War on Drugs." He just happened to be one in a long line of loony legionnaires, starting with Richard Nixon and John Mitchell and not perhaps ending with George Bush, Ed Meese and William Casey, whose "zero tolerance" of poor people, black people and young people would eventually conclude in contempt as well for that fussy inconvenience, the Bill of Rights.
    There is no better briefing on this evil burlesque than Don Baum's richly anecdotal, statistics-saturated and more than occasionally sarcastic aria of indignant muckraking, Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure. It's as if Lincoln Steffens and Jonathan Swift had teamed up for a miniseries featuring every pol who ever exploited the class and culture wars; every cop ever impatient with those legal niceties that distinguish this country from Myanmar; every ninja narc anxious to bust down doors, bust up heads and confiscate a yacht; every prurient sleuth needing a license to rummage in our garbage, our mail, our bedrooms, even our excrement; and every star of a TV cop show for whom the presumption of innocence is such a narrative-clogging drag. They got what they wanted. And we got prisons.
    First of all, there never was a drug epidemic when the Nixon Justice Department declared its dirty little war. More Americans—1,824—died falling down stairs in 1969 than perished from every illegal drug combined, and twice as many choked to death on food. As many died from gun accidents in 1971, while ten times more committed suicide. Not to mention a 1972 body count of 33,000 cirrhosed livers and 55,000 highway accidents, mostly alcohol-related, and not even to think about cigarettes—which, in 1989 when Bill B. was trying to kick his habit, killed 395,000, whereas coke killed 3,618 (or not as many as anterior horn cell disease). Nobody dies from smoking marijuana. Nor is there any evidence that it's a "gateway" drug to stronger stuff. And if it weren't criminal to toke up, there wouldn't be 11 million "regular" (monthly) users of illegal drugs in the United States; there would be 2 million, about 350,000 of them cokeheads.
    But declaring war on drugs was Nixon's way of retreating from the L.B.J. War on Poverty. By 1982 the Reaganaut abandonment was full-throttle: budgeting for child nutrition, down 34 percent; urban development grants, down 35; education block grants, down 38; school milk programs, down 78. By the end of Reagan's second term, spending on prisons and police had increased 600 percent, and even local county governments lavished $2 billion more each year on criminal justice than on schools—astonishing, since counties don't pay for imprisonment but finance virtually all K-12 education. Our prison population had doubled, and the proportion of those inside for drugs rose from 1 in 15 to 1 in 3, 85 percent of them for mere possession.
    And this skewed priority is far from the worst of the Drug War's residue. The Constitution has been battered. Step by angry step, Baum takes us through the manifold abuses, most approved by a Supreme Court still pretending to be strict-constructionist: "loose" warrants, a weakened Miranda and wiretaps on traditionally privileged conversations with doctors, lawyers and clergy. Forfeiture proceedings that allow prosecutors to confiscate the homes and bank accounts of purported potheads, without due process, just compensation or a conviction, and are a license to loot for bounty-hunting cops. RICO prosecutions that send college students to prison for conspiring to introduce two people later caught peddling drugs. Legalized no-knocks and preventive detention. Warrantless searches of cars at roadblocks and schoolchildren's lockers. Random urine tests of federal employees and workers in "sensitive" jobs like transportation and pro football. Permission to open suitcases and first-class mail, on the say-so of barking dogs. "Courier profiles" targeting Latinos and Nigerians. Forced defecation, into airport wastepaper baskets, by anybody remotely resembling such a profile. The end of the "exclusionary rule" on evidence gathered by heretofore illegal searches and seizures, based on anonymous tips or a hunch. Revoking passports of U.S. citizens caught with as much as a joint. Kicking first-time possession offenders and their families out of public housing. Unleashing on dope fiends and pedestrians the military, the Coast Guard and our own home-grown narcoparamilitares, the C.I.A. Shall I go on? Baum does, indefatigably.
    From Baum, you will learn more than you want to about G. Gordon Liddy and Operation Intercept; Nelson Rockefeller and life imprisonment; heroin addiction in Vietnam and how to make it worse; total war on defense attorneys; paraquat and synthetic THC; Ross Perot as Texas drug czar; the invasion of Humboldt County by black helicopters right out of Thomas Pynchon; the "crack baby" fraud; Procter & Gamble's exclusive rights to the "Just Say No" slogan; and D.E.A. raids on criminal florists who sell indoor gardening equipment that can be used to grow either pot or orchids—which florists dared to advertise, next to the bongs and roach clips, in magazines like High Times. More than a million Americans were arrested in 1990, 264,000 for pot possession, as if no one ever told them that marijuana makes you impotent or gay, depending.
    Does it surprise you to learn that, with the help of Operation Hammer, the L.A.P.D. managed at one time or another by the end of the last decade to arrest three-quarters of all young black men in Los Angeles? That, between 1985 and 1987, the percentage of drug-trafficking defendants nationwide who just happened to be African-American was 99? That perhaps the huge discrepancy in sentences for dealing crack versus dealing powder cocaine can be accounted for by the fact that 90 percent of crack dealers are black, retailing small hits, while dealers in powder tend to be white wholesalers? That one out of every four young black men is in prison, on parole or on probation? That even as 1,500 people a week went to jail in the first six months of 1994, there were more drugs than ever before on the streets? That in this country capable of accustoming itself "to everything, good and bad" or even paranormal so long as it's fat free, the average number of prisoners per prison guard is three, whereas the average number of pupils per public school teacher is thirty? That, as the RAND Corporation explained last month, spending $1 million on long mandatory prison sentences reduces coke consumption by 29 pounds a year, whereas that same $1 million used to treat heavy users would cut consumption 220 pounds? That what Bill Clinton proposes to do to these cartels is freeze their assets off?
    I am reminded of a passage in The Autumn of the Patriarch, when the wretched children who were "disappeared" because they picked a winning lottery number are suddenly discovered, and even Gabo's thuggish Caligula experiences a qualm:
In spite of it all, he did not measure the true depth of the abyss until he saw the children like cattle in a slaughterhouse in the inner courtyard of the harbor fort, he saw them come out of the dungeons like a stampede of goats blinded by the brilliance of the sun after so many months of nocturnal terror, they were confused in the light, there were so many at the same time that he didn't see them as two thousand separate children but as a huge shapeless animal that was giving off an impersonal stench of sun-baked skin and making a noise of deep waters and its multiple nature saved it from destruction, because it was impossible to do away with such a quantity of life without leaving a trace of horror that would travel around the world....
    So, too, in the Drug Wars, are our Fourth, Fifth and Eighth Amendments desaparecidos. And thus, as well, contemptibly, has our black manhood been kidnapped.
Copyright (c) 1997, The Nation Company, L.P. All rights reserved. Electronic redistribution for nonprofit purposes is permitted, provided this notice is attached in its entirety. Unauthorized, for-profit redistribution is prohibited. For further information regarding reprinting and syndication, please call The Nation at (212) 242-8400, ext. 226 or send e-mail to Max Block at mblock@thenation.com.

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