DRCNet Book Review: "Busted: Stone Cowboys, Narco-Lords, and Washington's War on Drugs" 12/20/02

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Standing alone, nearly any of the essays in this new anthology on the disparate impacts of drug prohibition open a window to the damage done by a century of drug war. Taken as a whole, the essays in "Busted" reinforce each other, together building a subtle, textured and impressive refutation of prohibition.

Edited by Mike Gray, the author of "Drug Crazy" and the '70s movie "The China Syndrome," "Busted" will probably not cause any epiphanies among committed drug warriors -- try to imagine Orrin Hatch or Mark Souder finishing the volume, looking up, and saying, "Gee, I didn't realize..." -- nor, since the book consists largely of reprints of previously published material, is it likely to hold anything new for the well-read drug reformer. But there are a large number of people who are neither puritanical prohibitionists nor wild-eyed psychonaut legalizers, a growing number of whom are open to new perspectives on the intractable social problem that is the war on drugs.

For this group -- the unformed middle -- "Busted" will be a highly persuasive eye-opener. Beginning with Davis' introduction, in which he notes that his small-town in Indiana is now, after decades of drug war, home to meth labs and coke dealers, readers are treated to essay after well-written essay by critics from across the political spectrum: Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley weigh in from the libertarian right, Steven Jay Gould and Oliver Stone from the left, Chris Hitchens in transition (once a leftist, Hitchens has recently not seen a falling US bomb he cannot justify), as well as leading reformers including former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, NORML founder Keith Stroup, former Week Online writer Adam Smith and, of course, Drug Policy Alliance's Ethan Nadelmann, whose 1998 essay in Foreign Policy, "Commonsense Drug Policy," reprinted in "Busted," is a key document in the history of contemporary drug reform.

It is particularly cheering to see the work of Southwestern writer Charles Bowden included. Bowden, the author of "Blood Orchid"--now thankfully back in print -- and the brand new "Down By the River: A Story of Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family," is one of the most sensitive and nuanced voices on US drug policy, and more broadly, the state of the American soul, and an author who should be more widely known. His contribution to this volume, "Teachings of Don Fernando: A Life and Death in the Narcotics Trade," provides an enticing glimpse into the world of a professional snitch, one who informs not for profit or self-protection, but from a sense of pleasure and righteousness.

Also of special interest is the transcript of a conversation between Clinton era drug czar Barry McCaffrey and New York Times political columnist Abe Rosenthal. Recorded in the wake of the successful California medical marijuana initiative in 1996 and made public as part of the lawsuit filed against McCaffrey for his role in attempting to prosecute doctors who recommended medical marijuana, the conversation opens a disturbing window on the collaboration between public sector drug warriors and their hallelujah choir in key places in the mass media.

Although Rosenthal is well-known as a chest-thumping neanderthal, and his opposition to drug reform is not in the least surprising, what is surprising and disheartening for people who believe in the watchdog role of the press is Rosenthal's positioning himself as on the "same team" as a government bureaucrat. "We got caught off base in California," Rosenthal complains at one point. McCaffrey attempts to console the distraught Rosenthal by suggesting that drug fighters could use the "100,000 dead this year from drug abuse" to challenge the California medical marijuana vote. Rosenthal excitedly concurs: "Yes, that's what we have to do, I mean, not we, but all of us, is convince the people of California of the connection between the initiative, which they still see as a pot initiative, and the 100,000 dead."

Alas for McCaffrey and Rosenthal, their little plot failed (although John Walters seems to still be running down the same path), but their collaboration is a shining example of the necessity for alternative voices on drug policy, whether through organs like the Week Online or through volumes like "Busted." Other than McCaffrey and Rosenthal, the only drug warrior represented is Walters, who contributes a piece demonizing marijuana. As Mike Gray explained in his introduction, this is the case because the prohibitionists haven't come up with any new arguments in recent decades. Walters' screed is a representative and sufficient example of current prohibitionist thought, Gray explains.

It's not too late for Christmas. If there is someone in your life who is beginning to think about drug policy, or even someone already on the side of the angels who wants to dig a little deeper, "Busted" would make a fine last-minute gift. Several of its essays are more convincing refutations of drug prohibition than a hundred academic monographs.

Busted lists at $16.95 and is published by Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books.

A DRCNet special offer to get a complimentary copy of "Busted" will be announced within the next three weeks.

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Issue #268, 12/20/02 Special Offer Continues -- DRCNet Needs Your Help! | Editorial: Expanding the Chorus | 108 Euro-Parliamentarians Call for Legal, Regulated Drug Trade, Reform of UN Conventions | Congressional Drug Warrior Having Doubts: Dan Burton's Near Epiphany | Michigan Legislature Repeals Mandatory Minimum Drug Laws | Canadian Marijuana Activists Skeptical on Decrim | Canadian Supreme Court Postpones Marijuana Cases, Cites Parliament Report, Justice Minister Statement on Decrim | DRCNet Book Review: "Busted: Stone Cowboys, Narco-Lords, and Washington's War on Drugs" | And the Winners Are | Federal Judge Shows Keen Interest in Raich/Monson Medical Marijuana Case | Bolivia Coca Growers Announce Blockades for January 6 -- Will Continue Dialogue | DC Measure 62 Clears Hurdle, Goes to Congress 268/jeffjones Newsbrief: Oakland Cannabis Co-op Director Founded Guilty on Federal Jury Tampering Charges, Handed Out Flyer at Epis Trial | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cop Story | Newsbrief: Stop the Presses! Poor, Blacks Face Brunt of Houston Drug War | Newsbrief: Texas ACLU Report Slams Task Forces, Calls for End to $200 Million Annual Boondoogle | Newsbrief: MPP Continues "War on Drug Czar" -- More Complaints to be Filed, O'Reilly Appearance Tonight | Newsbrief: Budget Cuts Free Kentucky Drug Prisoners -- Oklahoma Next? | Newsbrief: Nickelodeon Censors Beverly Hillbillies Marijuana References | Newsbrief: Asset Forfeiture Unconstitutional in New Jersey | Media Scan: Joycelyn Elders in Globe and Mail, George McMahon in Fort Worth Weekly, Jeff and Tracy, Santa Fe New Mexican, Medscape | DC Job Opportunities at DRCNet | Action Alerts: Rave Bill, Medical Marijuana, Higher Education Act Drug Provision, Tulia, Salvia Divinorum | The Reformer's Calendar

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