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Dan Baum

Politics of Failure

with Dan Baum

Dan Baum is the author of Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure (Little, Brown and Company, 1996) The book recounts the history of the War on Drugs, beginning with the Nixon administration in 1967. I thought that I was pretty informed about the irrationality and horrors of the drug war, but when I read Baum’s extremely well-researched book I was astonished to discover just how sinister things had gotten. Baum makes it very clear that the War on Drugs actually has very little to do with drugs. It is a political tool that gives incredible power to the police to lock people up, and seize hundreds of millions of dollars in property and assets every year.

The Drug War is primarily a political diversion tactic, that is directed toward scapegoating and imprisoning young black men, and people with large assets worth seizing, who use or sell marijuana. With Congress quibbling over a few million dollars for Medicaid and Medicare, no politician ever questions the monster eighteen billion dollar plus federal budget spent on drug prohibition that doesn’t work. The thirty year Drug War has had no effect on the availability of drugs, and as a result of drug prohibition, drug-related killings and crime have increased, our prisons are exploding, and our court system is strangled. Treating people with drug addiction problems as criminals has done nothing to lower the number of addicts, and has only multiplied the dangers of drug abuse.

Ron Seigel, a psycho-pharmacologist at UCLA discusses in his book Intoxication how every human culture and every animal species on earth use, and have always used, some type of plant for its psycho-active effect. Drug use is part of human nature, so any attempt to completely eradicate it from the population is doomed from the start.

Baum has been a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the Atlanta Constitution. This interview was conducted over the phone on July 22, 1996.


David: What inspired you to write Smoke and Mirrors?

Dan: I live in Missoula, Montana, which is about as crime and drug-free a town as you can imagine. Nobody locks their house, and that kind of thing. In 1991 the DEA came to Missoula and ran riot. They started busting people for growing five or ten marijuana plants in their basements, confiscating the houses, and sending them to federal prison for anywhere from fifteen months to five years.

You know, I’ve been a reporter a long time. In fact, I was a drug war reporter for awhile at the Atlanta Constitution. Usually when you’re a reporter you know what the story is when you start, and your reporting is just a matter of getting the facts and figures, quotes and color to back it up. But when I started looking into this one I was just astounded. I would come home every night and say to my wife, you won’t believe what the government can do now. You won’t believe how many people are in prison, what has happened to the Bill of Rights, and how much money we’re spending. She’s a journalist too, and she was skeptical. She’d say, oh, you must have that wrong, go back and find it again. And I would go back, and find, no I’d gotten it right the first time. It’s just that the truth was as horrible as I had thought.

So then I wrote some magazine articles for The Nation, The ABA Journal, and The Village Voice, and realized that while there had been critical writing about the drug war, nobody had ever stepped back and said, well how did this happen? How did we get there? How, in a democratic society did we get to a place where we have a policy that is so destructive, so expensive, so counter-productive, and is so unassailable- because you really can’t criticize it. It’s almost forbidden speech to criticize. That’s when I decided that I wanted to do a book. So I raised some grant money to keep me alive for the seven months while I wrote the proposal for the book, and I sent it around to agents. I sent it to ten agents and eight of them wanted it. I picked one, and she sold it in about a day and a half. It happened very quickly.

David: So, in researching the book, you knew something about it before you started?

Dan: I didn’t know anything about it before I started.

David: Were you surprised by what you discovered?

Dan: I was amazed. Literally, it was one forehead-smacking revelation after another. I could not believe the things I was finding. I would check them four or five different ways. I’m a documents person. I tend not to believe anything that anybody tells me. I like seeing it written down, and I use sources usually just to tell me where the documents are. And I was amazed at the stuff I was finding.

David: If all drugs in America were suddenly legalized, what do you think the consequences would be?

Dan: I don’t really know what legal means when you say that, to tell you the truth.

David: Well, there would be no criminal consequences for drug use, and they would be available to people if they wanted them.

Dan: Right, but how available? Would they be advertised? Would they be available to anybody, or just to people over eighteen? Would it be kind of like whiskey is now- where you can’t advertise it on TV, you can’t sell it to minors, and you can’t operate machinery or drive under it’s influence?

David: Let’s just say that all drugs were legalized in the restrictive sense that alcohol and tobacco are legal.

Dan: I think that there would be an increase in drug addiction, and we’d have more drug addicts. I think more kids would probably be able to get drugs, and start to use them. I think we would see, in the near-term, a spike of drug-related injury and death that would be painful. After alcohol prohibition there was a spike in alcohol-related injury and death. But just a tiny portion of the money that we’d be saving fighting the drug war could go a long way toward treating and ameliorating those tragedies.

David: Do you think that drug prohibition has had any positive consequences?

Dan: I think there’s a role for drug prohibition. I think it should be prohibited to give it to kids. I think it should be prohibited to drive under the influence. And I think it should be prohibited for addicts, perhaps, to be getting it in an unrestrained fashion, without being in treatment. I think drug addicts are a problem. But any positive effects of complete drug prohibition? Probably not, although I do think there can be positive effects from a societal stance about drugs.

I mean, I’m one of the people who doesn’t laugh at Nancy Reagon for “Just say no.” I think “Just say no” is the kind of drug policy that works. Jaw-boning can be effective. Coming from Nancy Reagon it was kind of ridiculous. But if Michael Jordon were out there in a big “Just say no” campaign I believe that would work for a large number of children. I think that there are a lot of kids who are afraid of drugs, and do use drugs because of peer pressure. I’m sure they would like to think that they’re part of a culture of kids who don’t use drugs, and that it can be cool not to do drugs. I think that’s very positive. So there are aspects of the way we’ve thought about drugs in the last thirty years that are positive. What doesn’t seem to do any good is trying to lock people up, and put them in prison for possessing or selling them, because the drugs are as available as ever.

David: What do you think are some of the greatest dangers of drug prohibition?

Dan: Well, the biggest danger is that we become a different kind of country than the one we were envisioned to be. We become a punitive, spying , snitch-oriented country in which the police have way too many powers, and it’s too easy to put people in prison. We create a lot of racial division with the drug policy, because blacks are victimized by it to so much greater an extent than anyone else. I mean, there’s all kinds of horrors about the drug war. We also make the drug problem worse. People want to use these drugs, and we have to accept that that’s not going to change. So everybody who wants to use these drugs has to deal with criminals to get them. On the black market the purity varies, and the adulterants vary. It’s dangerous to buy and sell these drugs because you’re dealing with criminals. Being illegal makes drugs sexy, so that makes them even more attractive. There’s all kinds of problems with our current drug policy.

David: How do you think the problem of drug addiction should be handled?

Dan: I’m really not enough expert on addiction. It’s not something I spent a lot of time researching to tell you the truth. I was looking at the policies.

David: Isn’t that what the White House says that the drug war is attempting to fight- drug addiction?

Dan: Well, no. I mean, it depends. In my cynical view, the drug war is about harassing certain populations. The drug war is about scapegoating. It has nothing to do with drugs. In fact, I’ve been talking to a lot of drug policy reform people, and I’m trying to get them to stop thinking in terms of the drugs. The drug war is not about the drugs, so the reform of the drug war shouldn’t be about the drugs. It’s not a question of whether these drugs are harmful or not, or medically useful. It’s not about that. It’s about the law. It’s about police It’s about repression. The drugs really play very little role in this.

How should drug addicts be handled? They should be offered meaningful treatment, and there are drug treatment protocols that work. I’m not an expert on them, but I know they work. There’s the Twelve-step program, for example, and there are others that have been successful. But those programs have to be funded. They have to be long-term, and people have to have an incentive to come in. These people have to be fed and taken care of while they’re in such programs. I mean, if we really wanted to combat drug addiction we can do it. But we don’t really want to combat drug addiction.

David: So you think that a medical approach toward drug addiction is more effective than a criminal approach?

Dan: Definitely. Yeah, a criminal approach doesn’t work.

David: How do you think the money used to fuel the drug war should be redirected?

Dan: There’s all kinds of functions of government that I think are legitimate and need better funding- schools, the arts, after-school programs, child-care for working women, universal Canadian-style health-care, taking care of poor people, and creating a just society. You know, you’re talking to a rad. You’re talking to somebody who thinks that society is pretty messed up. I think that money needs to come out of the drug war, the defense department, the S&L’s, and corporate welfare. It has to come out of all kinds of things. That’s a question we could sit around and talk about all day.

David: What is the current annual federal budget for the drug war?

Dan: It’s going to be eighteen billion. That’s bigger than Commerce, Interior, and State departments put together. But the federal money is only one part of it. If you combine state and local spending on the drug war, we spend more on this than we spend on private health insurance in this country. One out of every five California employees works for the Department of Corrections, and California has a big state government- with big social service, highways, agriculture, forests, and fisheries. They have a huge state government with a lot of function, and one of every five employees of the state of California works for the prison system.

David: I’ve also heard that marijuana is the third largest cash crop in California.

Dan: It may be the third. It may be the first. Nobody knows. That’s the problem with drug prohibition- we don’t know. We don’t have any figures. We can’t tell for sure what’s happening. And all that money is going to criminals. Conservatives should be furious about that. That money should be taxed, and we should all be reaping the benefit of that.

David: Can you briefly summarize why you think that marijuana is illegal in America?

Dan: Marijuana is illegal for a number of reasons. It’s associated with segments of the population that, as a society, we want to marginalize and punish- intellectuals, the Left, the young, the black, the Hispanic, anti-authoritarians, anti-capitalists, creative people, that whole segment of society that basically thumbs it’s nose at straight society, and doesn’t want to work hard, and wants to get stoned. As a society, we’re just not comfortable with those people. But even more than that, I think it is illegal now, and will probably remain illegal, because so many people use it.

David: Wait, you’re saying it will remain illegal because so many people use it?

Dan: Absolutely. A majority doesn’t use it, but so many people use it that, with marijuana illegal we have a seventy million person drug problem. If marijuana were legal tomorrow we’d have a five million person drug problem. Our drug problem would disappear.

David: Alcohol is not counted as part of the drug problem.

Dan: Right. We’ve got an illegal drug problem. We can say that we have seventy million users of illegal drugs, and people think, well, that means seventy million crack addicts. Marijuana is used to beef up the numbers. There has been a conscious effort made to erase distinctions among the drugs, so that we can say we have seventy million users of illegal drugs. But what that really means is that we have five million crack and heroin users, and sixty-five million pot smokers.

David: Do you think that marijuana will ever be legal in America?

Dan: I’m bad at predictions. The first freelance piece I ever wrote was about how the Berlin Wall will never come down. I think it’s a long way off. Let’s put it that way.

David: In researching Smoke and Mirrors, did you ever encounter any opposition to writing the book?

Dan: William Bennett wouldn’t talk to me. He was the only source I asked for an interview who wouldn’t talk. That was the only opposition really. I had amazing cooperation from almost everybody.

David: How have critics reacted to the book?

Dan: All the reviews have been positive, which has been great. But the reviews usually have two complaints. One is that I don’t offer any solutions. The other is that I have a very strong point of view. Both of these critiques strike me as very American and television-Age. I think Europeans have a better understanding that there’s such a thing in society as a critic, as a journalist who is a town-crier voicing a problem. All I intended to do was to be a journalist on this, so that people would start talking about it and dealing with it. I just wanted to say, look, here is your drug policy, here is how it got the way it is, if you’re comfortable with this, you have no problem. If you’re not comfortable with this you can do something about it.

I’m not a policy maker. I don’t work for the Brookings Institute. I’m not a physician. I’m not a police officer. I’m not a senator. I’m a journalist, and I have a strong point of view. I think the best kind of journalism has a strong point of view. So I cop to both of those critiques. I don’t offer solutions, and I have a strong point of view. Other than that the reviews have been positive. What’s been even more gratifying is I’ve done about fifty radio talk shows since the book came out, and I don’t think I’ve had more than six or seven hostile calls.

David: These were radio shows you did in what part of the country?

Dan: All over the country- everywhere from New York City, where I did the Bob Grant Show, the most right-wing of shows, to a little Christian radio station in Homegrown, Alabama. I think I’ve probably done radio talk shows in all fifty states. Because I do them by phone, I often don’t really know where I’m talking to. Four years ago I did some talk radio when my articles came out about the drug war, and the calls then were overwhelmingly hostile. They said things like, you’re a druggie. You’re a traitor. How dare you question the War on Drugs! Drugs are a total problem killing our children. Now people call in and say things like, I’m a conservative Republican, and I agree with you a hundred percent, or my fifteen year old daughter is a rehab, and I agree with you completely. Those planes flying over the Gulf of Mexico don’t do my daughter any good. We’re ignoring children. People are mad about this. People don’t like it. It’s been very gratifying.

David: What do you think it will take to end the drug war in America?

Dan: Oh, I think as a result of this very conservative mood we’re in now, where everything Washington does is bad, people are wanting much more accountability about the money that’s spent. People are suspicious of federal bureaucracies sustaining programs that don’t work. They’re suspicious of Washington telling state and local government what to do, and of infringing on the rights of individuals, i.e. gun laws, and what not. Once people who care about those things- and I think a majority of Americans do- start looking at the drug war, they are going to realize that the drug war is the biggest violator of all of those principles. It makes welfare, gun laws, and environmental protection pale by comparison, and I think people are going to demand a reckoning.

David: Why do you think there’s such a taboo against questioning the drug war?

Dan: Oh, it’s deliberate. Beginning with Jimmy Carter’s second drug czar there has been a deliberate attempt to shut down the debate, to marginalize people who question, to make people who question appear to be druggies, demons, and enemies. Joycelyn Elders is the ultimate example of that. The Surgeon General of the United States- highest-ranking health official in the country- was not allowed to suggest that maybe we deal with drugs some other way. She suggested it. Then she was slapped down, and quickly fired.

This has become forbidden speech. Also I think the words legalize and decriminalize are weapons of the prohibitionist. I’m not a legalizer. I’m not a decriminalizer. I don’t like those terms, and I won’t have them attached to me. I don’t think anybody in the drug policy movement should. They’re meaningless terms, and they are used by the prohibitionists to push people off to the side and ignore.

David: Why do you say they’re meaningless terms?

Dan: Well, I don’t know what legal means. Are hand guns legal? They are in some places, and in some ways. And other places, and other ways they’re not. Alcohol is legal in some circumstances, and not in others. When you say legalize, then they say you want it advertised on TV, and sold in vending machines in schools. Well, chocolate is advertised on TV and sold in vending machines in schools, but beer, whiskey, and handguns are not. We do a more or less okay job of controlling things, and I think these drugs should be controlled. How they should be controlled is a debate for another day.

All I want to see happen now is a debate opened up. What is our real drug problem? What is the drug problem we really need to fight? Then everything else that we do not identify as a drug problem we should leave alone. We now make it a matter of cabinet-level national importance every time a non-addicted grown-up wants to smoke a marijuana cigarette. That’s now our policy. We’re spending money, putting people in prison, and pursuing that policy with great vigor.

Let’s have a national debate about this. Should that be our definition of a drug problem? I would argue no. The country might decide, yeah, we want to do that, and then we can go on doing what we’re doing. I would argue our real drug problem is addicts and kids. Other people would define it differently. But let’s get a dialogue going. Let’s identify our drug problem.

Once we’ve identified it, we can talk about what to do about it, and how to handle everything that’s not part of our drug problem. But to say legalize, decriminalize- they are meaningless, and it’s not even time to talk about that. First we have to talk about what the drug problem is. If we can come to a national consensus about what the drug problem is, then we can talk about how to solve it.

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