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Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess & How We Can Get Out, by Mike Gray


February 1998

Reviewed by Eric Sterling

Since the early 1960s every movement for social reform has wished for a powerful, persuasive, best-selling book like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring or Ralph Nader's Unsafe at any Speed to catapult the reform to the top of the nation's consciousness. Mike Gray's Drug Crazy deserves to be that book for drug policy reform. Gray is a gifted writer. Twenty years ago he wrote the screenplay for The China Syndrome. He was nominated for an Oscar. That acclaimed motion picture starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas (who produced the film), awakened the nation to the danger of construction shortcuts, inadequate training, and unsafe design in commercial nuclear power plants. Only days after its release, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York froze in panic as the Three Mile Island nuclear plant almost went critical. Smoke and Mirrors by Dan Baum told the history of drug policy from Richard Nixon through William Bennett. Drug Crazy weaves the strands of more than a century of tragic drug policy into a clear, tight narrative, written with verve and authority.

Drug Crazy is a brilliant marriage of the novelist's vision with the historian's research and documentation. It opens with the drama of the bullet-swept streets of Chicago vividly described with a master screenwriter's power. Today's urban reality is compellingly compared with the corruption-riven Chicago of Al Capone. I found especially powerful the chapters laying out the history of drug prohibition, and the contemporary corruption in Mexico, Colombia, and along our border. The outlines of the bloodshed and corruption in Mexico and Colombia, and among U.S. border authorities are well-known, however Gray's tightly-written chronicle of bombings, assassination and payoffs draws a bead on the heart of these crises.

While Baum told of the drug politics in our lifetime, Gray tells of the older political cynicism and dishonesty that shaped the image of narcotics and marijuana, and our laws, for our parents and grandparents. Reckless legislating to fight the manufactured specters of marijuana and narcotics were tools of ambitious politicians like Richmond Hobson (AL), Sam Rayburn (TX), Fred Vinson (KY), John McCormack (MA), Hale Boggs (LA), (and Jim Wright (TX) and Gerald Solomon (NY)). Politicians like Sen. Price Daniels (TX), or Rep. Boggs, both running for governor would father mandatory minimum sentences in the 1950s, as did Governor Nelson Rockefeller (NY) running for President two decades later.

If you have sometimes felt you needed another way to explain to family and friends why you were so concerned about drug policy (and why it needs to be changed), you should give them this book. The book is being published by Random House and will be available in June. Ask your bookstore to order it now.