Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure

smoke-mirrors   Little, Brown & Co. 1996

Smoke and Mirrors is the story, starting in Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, of how heroin, cocaine, marijuana and the rest were turned into a political weapon. It’s told in scene, with the reader in the room as the likes of John Mitchell, Ed Meese, William Bennett and the rest concocted a policy that today sees more black men in prison than in college and has infringed the civil liberties of all of us, drug-user and non-user alike.

I often tell beginning writers, “Write your book for the same reason you’d play tennis or saxophone — because you enjoy the doing of it, not because you want to have done it.”

“Your book stops doing you any good at all the day you hand it in,” I’m fond of saying. “It won’t make you rich, it won’t make you famous, and it won’t change the world. That is still good advice, but I was a little bit wrong about the changing-the-world part. In 2016, twenty years after our first book, Smoke and Mirrorswas published, I received a call from a man named Mason Tvert, who introduced himself as the person who designed and ran the campaign to bring legal recreational marijuana to Colorado — a genuinely world-changing development. “I just wanted you to know,” he said, “that it was reading your book Smoke and Mirrors years ago that inspired me to get involved in this.” So, in a kind of three-rail carom shot, one of my books did indeed change the world. Yours can, too.

New York Times — “Devastating. . . Baum’s pointillist technique is highly effective in many ways. . . . A valuable work of reporting.”

The Washington Post– “The results, Baum contends, are an all-out assault on constitutional protections against search and seizure, massive and indiscriminate incarceration and a disproportionate and ultimately embarrassing vendetta against young, black males.”

LA Times — “”Smoke and Mirrors” provides a lacerating look at how we got into this quagmire, matched in futility only by the war in Vietnam. As Baum shows, this battle has been costly not only in national treasure–an estimated $120 billion spent during the Bush years alone–but also in the violence done to our courts, our cities and our civil liberties. And we have little to show for it.”

Newsday –“Sobering. . . . Baum has a good eye for absurdity.”  —

The Nation — “There is no better briefing on this evil burlesque than Dan Baum’s richly anecdotal, statistics-saturated and more than occasionally sarcastic aria of indignant muckraking. It’s as if Lincoln Steffens and Jonathan Swift had teamed up for a miniseries. . . ” –

San Diego Union Tribune — “There are no unnamed sources or made-up names. Baum talked to former policy makers who reportedly had not spoken for the record before. He takes care to give words in quotation marks credibility, saying all reflect conversations recorded in writing or are dialogues remembered exactly. Baum’s diligence, if we take him at his word, is most refreshing.” 


Buy Smoke and Mirrors at Indie Bound or Powell’s.