Smoke and Mirrors

In a frenzy to achieve a "drug-free America," police and prosecutors have tossed the Bill of Rights right out the window. When investigating drug cases, cops across the country can seize cars, homes, cash and bank accounts without so much as a warrant, much less a conviction. The drug warriors have no shame: they routinely tap people's phones, paw through garbage and mail, and sample suspects' hair, blood, urine and even feces.In the age of zero tolerance, individual liberties get zero respect.As this trio of books attests, the nation's disturbing disregard for the Bill of Rights started three decades ago when the Nixon administration invented the War on Drugs to supersede the Johnson administration's War on Poverty. Pointing to 60 Minutes survey from 1970 in which respondents called for tougher police procedures, Nixon's Attorney General John Mitchell maintained that "Americans don't like the Constitution." So in the hallowed name of law and order, Congress began passing legislation limiting the rights of suspects, especially those accused of drug crimes. And they did it with the tacit approval of America' silent majority.Now it's time for that silence to be broken.In Drug Warriors and Their Prey, historian Richard Lawrence Miller summarizes his apocalyptic analysis: "Authoritarians are manufacturing and manipulating public fears about drug use, in order to create a police state where a much broader agenda of social control can be implemented...I believe the war on drugs masks a war on democracy."Miller focuses repeatedly on the Kafkaesque injustice of civil forfeiture, making it clear that the War on Drugs is not driven by family values but by finances. Up the ladder it's all about money, as paramilitary drug interdiction efforts drain millions of tax dollars, as do the construction and maintenance of prisons. As to asset forfeiture, cops have always lined their pockets at the expense of drug users (remember Serpico?), but now they do it legally. Miller lists case after brutal case of Americans having money and property confiscated. One rookie pot farmer was caught with $1,000 worth of seedlings, but a U.S. court of appeals approved forfeiture of his $94,810 house. Police in Nazi Germany, Miller points out, similarly targeted wealthy Jews in order to make themselves rich.Forfeiture started as a means to take away guns, transport vehicles and other drug traffic-oriented property, but now they can take whatever they damn well please. "Into the 1990s," Miller writes, "{U.S.} courts sustained civil forfeitures against any property owned by someone convicted of a drug offense, regardless of whether the property was associated with the offense."Miller's approach is impressive but Dan Baum's easily readable Smoke and Mirrors shines as the best expose of the shame and the sham called the War on Drugs. Surprisingly entertaining, with Letterman-like sarcasm underlying its chronological narrative, Baum's book is well-researched, well-organized and well-written. The former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the Atlanta Constitution meticulously traces the inception and escalation of the war America wages against its own people.Not only does Baum's prose meander revealingly through the muck of drug war casualties, he also teases readers with telling statistics at the end of most of his 22 chapters (i.e. "Federal drug-enforcement budget in 1969: $65 million/ Federal drug-enforcement budget in 1974: $719 million").The author also provides a convenient list of the book's colorful cast of characters, including familiar faces such as John Ehrlichman, H. Ross Perot and Ed Meese, and lesser-known figures such as psychiatrist Peter Bourne, Jimmy Carter's drug policy advisor, and Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).An even lesser known drug warrior from rural New York State named Ben Banta even appears briefly in Smoke and Mirrors as Baum paints a picture of the institutional hypocrisy that dominates the War on Drugs. While Banta, a Republican, served as press secretary at the Office of National Drug Control Policy during the final days of the George Bush administration, Baum asked him if he'd smoked pot in college, and he said, "Of course." Then the author asked what he did before fronting Bush's drug office, and Banta said he worked on a campaign promoting Miller Lite beer. "Then I sold drugs. Now I unsell drugs," the upstate New Yorker shrugged.It's a short, sweet anecdote, but it speaks a thousand words about the marketing aspects of the government's anti-drug campaign. Image is everything, Baum notes throughout his book, pointing specifically to the mid-Eighties crack cocaine epidemic largely misperceived by the press and the public. Even the federal Drug Enforcement Administration admitted that free-base coke had made few inroads in the national narcotics market by 1986, but the DEA's analysis was roundly ignored. Crazed crack smokers and innocent "crack babies" made better sound bites than the truth (infant addiction is a total fabrication, Baum maintains).The crack hype--epitomized by cover stories in both Time and Newsweek magazines--actually increased demand for the dangerous drug. Street dealers laughed that they couldn't have bought better publicity if they tried."The War on Drugs frequently makes drug problems worse," Baum writes. "From scag in Da Nang to crack in the Bronx to superpotent hydroponic marijuana in the schoolyard, waves of enforcement have consistently inspired people to import, sell and use ever-stronger drugs."In his book Drug Warriors and Their Prey, Richard Miller deals with many of the same issues as Baum--asset forfeiture, no-knock laws, mandatory sentences, etc.--but his more scholarly approach results in a slightly denser text. Nevertheless, Miller's ideas remain painfully easy to follow as he develops two main metaphors for the War on Drugs: 1.) It parallels Germany's legal ostracism and eventual extermination of Jews during the Nazi regime, and 2.) America's current assault on drug users masks an ongoing war on democracy.Miller's five chapter headings aptly summarize the sick system: "Identification, Ostracism, Confiscation, Concentration and Annihilation." He points to the United States' internment camps for Japanese citizens during World War II as a clearly racist parallel to the current situation in which prisons are overcrowded with nonviolent drug offenders overwhelmingly of African or Hispanic origin.Baum and Miller agree that the War on Drugs is patently racist. Smoke and Mirrors recounts how New Jersey State Troopers targeted out-of-state black motorists for traffic stops on the Jersey Turnpike in 1987. The cops refused to provide numbers, so Rutgers University statisticians studied the trend. "The survey noted that while fewer than 5 percent of the cars on the turnpike had both out-of-state plates and were occupied by blacks," Baum reports, "80 percent of those stopped and arrested for drugs were out-of-state blacks."Longtime marijuana advocate Ed Rosenthal, co-author with Steve Kubby, of Why Marijuana Should Be Legal, also acknowledges the racist aspects of America's drug laws. In a pleasingly clear and concise primer on pot, Rosenthal and Kubby focus on the country's most widely used illegal substance. Drawing comparisons to the folly of alcohol prohibition earlier this century, the co-authors argue that anti-marijuana laws stigmatize millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens. Such laws simultaneously increase police power at the expense of "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."John Mitchell be damned! Americans do still care about the rights guaranteed us by the U.S. Constitution!PHOTO CAPTION:Drug war muckraker: Smoke and Mirrors author Dan Baum.SIDEBAR: Drug Warriors Descend on Middle AmericaThe War on Drugs impacts Americans across the country, whether or not they are among the millions who use illegal drugs. Many counties over the past several years have approved asset forfeiture measures allowing local police to confiscate property of people suspected of possessing drugs. Such efforts are now commonly filling police coffers across the country, even though they clearly violate the spirit of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Local legislative dissenters routinely include only those who represent poor people and minorities, who are often targeted by the drug warriors.Given the omnipresence of the War on Drugs, however, many middle-class citizens also suffer its sting. Consider these incidents from Syracuse, New York, a typical mid-size American city:In the summer of 1995, a Syracuse rock musician watched police officers take $2,000 in cash out of his bedroom safe in the summer of 1995 because his girlfriend had been assaulted in the hallway of his apartment building and she called police to investigate. They found a few grams of pot in the apartment, and so they confiscated his cash. In 1990, a Syracuse University neighborhood bookstore operator was goaded into buying a large quantity of LSD by a Syracuse Police Department undercover agent. After he purchased the psychedelics for the narc, he was busted and served more than six years in state prison because he refused to rat on the folks who sold him the stash.Then there's the Syracuse couple who went on vacation in July and returned home to be arrested after neighbors had called 911 to report their house had been burglarized. That unlucky couple was victimized twice: once by the intruder who stole property including several marijuana plants, and again by deputies who decided to arrest the burglary victims. The thief has yet to be apprehended, but the cops nailed the husband and wife for their indoor gardening project.And mid-summer, a suburban nightclub was raided and closed by deputies after the Onondaga County Sheriff's Department received anonymous letters accusing patrons and barkeepers of possessing pot and cocaine. The cops found less than a gram of each drug on the premises, but who needs hard evidence gathered by diligent police work when a mere unsigned note will do? Big Brother is everywhere.Much worse than merely being busted, Syracuse businessman Jonny Gammage lost his life on the frontline of the War on Drugs because, as a young black man driving a luxury vehicle, he fit the "profile" of a drug dealer. He was crushed to death on the street by suburban Pittsburgh police in October 1995 after he protested an early-morning traffic stop.Still think the War on Drugs doesn't affect you? Hell, you're paying for it! In July, New York Gov. George Pataki stumped the state pushing for $634.8 million to build 7,000 new prison cells. Even the normally conservative Syracuse Post-Standard editorialized against the expenditure in its July 29 edition, arguing that too many inmates are serving time for nonviolent drug offenses, while the state already owes $2.5 billion for prison construction never approved by voters. "Rather than throwing more money at the problem, Pataki would be wise to consider alternatives such as education reform or community-based drug treatment programs," The Post wrote.That makes sense--lock up the really bad guys, the ones who hurt people with guns and knives. The drug problem must be addressed as a public health issue, not as a concern of the criminal justice system. --Russ TarbyRuss Tarby is Senior Editor covering books and music for the Syracuse New Times in upstate New York. His book reviews won First Place for Best Arts Criticism in the under 55,000 circulation category of the 1997 Association of Alternative Newsweeklies Editorial Awards.

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