Successful public policy is very difficult to devise but when the known facts and the perceptions of the citizens and government officials are used with honesty, success is more likely. David Baum wrote a book about the ‘war on drugs’ titled Smoke and Mirrors which was published in 1996. Examples from his book have been discussed with reference to Deborah A. Stone’s categories of causal stories. Causal stories that are used to justify public policy may involve policy actions that have been carefully researched and are targeted towards a specific goal. On the other hand the actions may be based on popular myths or shaky philosophies. One way to identify causal stories is that they are not based on facts like natural physical phenomena but instead are socially constructed.
Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on drugs meaning he wanted the federal government to stop the spread of drugs in the United States. By the time Nixon became President the drug war had resulted in the negative impacts of loss of liberties for all citizens, illegal drugs were less expensive and stronger, younger children than ever before were using street drugs and drug violence was rampant in low income neighbourhoods. Baum described the escalation of violence this way “drug violence, unheard of at the start of the Drug War, now terrorized poor neighbourhoods” (Baum 274). Something had gone very wrong with the original intention of the public policy. The purposeful intentional action to develop a working policy had instead led to unintended unplanned consequences. The consequences resulted for many reasons including the misrepresentation of the facts or omission of important information. Even though the public policy was clearly a failure measured against its original intent politicians continued to support the policy for personal political goals or reasons that were never articulated.
In 1970 Times magazine ran a headline “Kids and Heroin: The Adolescent Epidemic” (33). A child with a Latino surname was the subject of the story. The Times did not name any experts used for the information shared in the article but the author stated “Heroin, long considered the affliction of the criminal, the derelict, the debauches, is increasingly attacking America’s children” (33). A prediction was added which warned “It has not cropped up everywhere yet but many experts believe that disaster looms large” (33). And another infamous quote from an unknown expert based on presumably non-existent research “If a young person smokes marijuana on more than ten occasions, the chances are one in five that he will go on to more dangerous drugs” (33). The original action was purposeful in order to make illegitimate the facts known about the harmless effects of marijuana. Charges were made that marijuana would lead to using drugs like heroin, in other words marijuana was given a brand new label for its new role as “a gateway drug” (33). If this was done long enough and often enough then people would become brainwashed (an intended, purposeful action) and lead to the oppression of youth (a purposeful, intentional consequence).
In 1990 the Washington Post, a conservative newspaper based in Washington, D.C. read “Crack Babies: The Worst Threat is Mom Herself and She Smoked Crack, then Killed her Children (271). Penalles County, Florida was the location for a research project based on sampling the urine of each pregnant woman visiting a private obstetrician or a public health clinic. The researchers found that 15 percent of black women and 15 percent of white women in the county used drugs during pregnancy. In other words the drug use was equal nonetheless African American women “were 10 times more likely to be reported to authorities for drug use” (271). The poorest women having incomes of less than $12,000 were reported as addicts approximately 7 times more often than women with an income of greater than $25,000. (271) Ironically women with drug addictions while pregnant in Florida faced jail instead of being bumped up on the waiting lists for drug addiction treatment.
A headline from High Times, a satirical progressive magazine, while William Bennett was chairman of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) read “Bennett Blasts Pot While Aide Has Nicotine Fit” (295). Bennett became so angry he took actions which resulted in the loss of liberties for the magazine and its subscibers. The DEA raided the magazine offices, acted to restrain (unlawfully) publishing the magazine and harassed the subscribers. This is an example of a politician taking action without clearly articulately his reasons; because if Bennett admitted he wanted to divert attention away from his own cigarette addiction he would no longer have any credibility as the head of the DEA. The situation fit the consequences of a causal theory with an unguided action, publishing the satirical articles in High Times. This action then led to purposeful, intentional consequences by Bennett and other who attacked the messenger and caused loss of liberties to High Times and anyone associated with the magazine.
In 1992 The New York Times ran a headline that reflected the public’s growing disenchantment with the war on drugs based on the research of journalist JosephTreaster. “Some Think the ‘War on Drugs’ is being Waged on the Wrong Front” (326). Notice the quotation marks around the words ‘war on drugs.’ Baum explains that although “the story began above the fold and ran to an entire inside page, the hardest blow was in the headline: the quotation marks around “War on Drugs” (326). The action taken to research the story and then print it on the front page was intentional. The article’s purpose was to alert people to the facts about the ‘war on drugs’ that did not match reality. Unfortunately the consequences did not lead to a purposeful change in the policy to make the results better. Instead the consequences are often based on taking advantage of opportunistic moments to further the argument supporting the ‘war on drugs.’ The consequences are therefore difficult to predict such as the recent phenomena of states passing legislation to legalize the medical use of marijuana and to decriminalize the use of small amounts of marijuana. Instead of waiting for the federal government to take practical action the states have taken responsibility for solving problems focused on drugs (in this example, particularly on marijuana).
The most convincing story discussed in Baum’s book Smoke and Mirrors was the 1992 article by journalist JosephTreaster in The New York Times with the headline “Some Think the ‘War on Drugs’ is being Waged on the Wrong Front.” First of all the headline did not use dramatic elements or satire to attract readers. The thought of kids taking heroin or poor women giving birth to ‘crack babies’ was good at starting controversy where there had been no controversy. The public debate resulting from the articles based on anonymous experts and research that was not cited has not been helpful in defining the cause and developing better policy. Articles based on false information only waste time because it causes a public debate that has no basis in fact. For example, is there such a newborn as a ‘crack baby’? Aren’t all newborns human babies who may or not be born with physical and health problems? The intention of the Washington Post story was to implicate the mothers in intentionally addicting their babies while still in the womb. In fact the mothers were not allowed into treatment programs to end their addictions. The article in the Times magazine headlined “Kids and Heroin: The Adolescent Epidemic” was designed, at least in part, to blame the non-white victims of a failed drug policy.
The article by Treaster was very different because facts were carefully explained and an intelligent, non-emotional argument could be made using the facts. The obvious argument based on the facts seemed to be that the reasons for the drug problems such as addiction and violence were complex. Therefore a careful evaluation of the problem was necessary so that a national drug policy could be designed to lessen or at least modify the cause. For example a policy could be shaped that did not victimize or criminalize people addicted to drugs but instead offered them treatment. Causal stories as defined and explained by Deborah Stone are useful tools in evaluating the headlines that influence people’s knowledge about public policy issues. The desired consequence should be one that helps the most people for the longest period of time; therefore drug treatment would be an appropriate public policy. Unfortunately other causal stories about the causes of the drug problem dominate the media and so that is how people understand the problem.
Baum, Dan. Smoke and Mirrors: The war on drugs and the politics of failure. USA: Little, Brown and Company, 1996.