Witch trials revisited
By Allison Balch
I live in Illinois,
way down in the south or seven hours from Chicago. I am a junior
in high school. The essay was written for my Honors English 11
class. The original intent of the essay was just to write something,
turn it in, and get an "A", but I really got into it.
I learned so much, and by then, all I wanted to get out of this
essay was that I could, perhaps, enlighten some people about
the War on Drugs.
I ran into my English teacher recently; he said he loved the
essay and found it to be very enlightening. I am glad I reached
him. I am only 16 now, but in two years I hope to go to a university
to study English. After graduation I would like to go to law
school. I want to be able transfer my passion for justice about
issues like drug prosecution into a setting where I can really
It become apparent while studying the book and movie, The
Crucible, that the Witch Trials of 17th century colonial America,
as portrayed in the play and in actual history, closely resemble
the War on Drugs of the United States in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Parallels can be seen in almost every facet of these events.
The methods of attaining evidence for trials have been uncannily
similar, as has been the treatment of suspected witches and drug
users. Dangerous government and authoritative corruption causing
vile injustice have been present in both the Salem Witch Trials
and the War on Drugs. It is no longer shocking to see that these
two similar cases of moral and societal warfare have been recognized
by many as national tragedies.
In The Crucible, after the girls are discovered dancing naked
in the woods and performing rituals outlawed in Puritan society,
they blame their misconduct on Tituba. After Tituba is questioned
about this accusation and whipped, she starts naming others who
were supposedly involved in 'witchcraft.' Adding to the chain
effect, the girls also start naming townspeople, and because
of these confessions of names Reverend John Hale says that their
ties with the devil are broken, and the girls are freed from
In the covert world of current drug law enforcement, if an individual
is discovered with any amount of an illegal substance, he/she
may be told to name other users. The narcotics officers will
inform them of the quota of drug users they will need to turn
in, and if they do indeed fulfill the quota, they are freed from
Greed and corruption were the main cause of the tragedies that
occurred in Puritan New England. Witch accusers became power-hungry
and ruined the lives of hundreds of innocent men and women. Neighbors
exhibited their greed by accusing their neighbors to attain their
land. The courts became corrupt and started accepting evidence
that should have been seen as heavily tainted and unreliable.
This also is the case today.
In 1999 in Tulia, Texas - a rural town described as the crucible
of the drug war by several writers and journalists - a sting
operation was conducted by a private investigator, and 43 were
arrested. Forty of the arrested were black. Almost all of the
arrested were convicted, and by juries mostly composed of whites
only. First time drug offenders were sentenced to as much as
20 years in prison. Those with prior convictions received as
much as 435 years.
No evidence other than one eyewitness was used in the Tulia trials.
The court ignored evidence that supported the alleged drug users'
innocence. It was later discovered that the one eyewitness used
had an outstanding arrest warrant for theft and was thus a wanted
criminal. It turned out that many, if not all the accused, were
actually innocent of the crimes they were indicted for.
Bob Newland, a founder of the South Dakota Industrial Hemp Council,
wrote this brief comparison of witches and drug users in a postcard
sent to legislators.
"Witches were purported to exhibit their affliction by exhibiting
antisocial behavior, including blasphemous speech, appearing
to be in a trance-like state, and indoctrination of children
into 'witchcraft.' Drug abusers are purported to exhibit their
affliction by antisocial behavior, appearing to be in trance-like
states, and indoctrination of children into drug abuse."
Whether it is coincidence or not, and whether it has been done
consciously or not, drug users tend to be viewed in much of the
same ways that the suspected witches of Salem, Massachusetts
were viewed. Obviously, negative views or opinions about a certain
group of people will lead to persecution, and it is not a surprise
that witches 310 years ago were treated much like drug users
are treated today.
Suspected witches were ostracized from society, as are indicted
drug criminals. This includes, but is not limited to, loss of
voting rights, denial of entry into certain government and private
institutions such as universities, and limits on acceptance in
The Salem Witch Trials are a well-remembered Early American tragedy,
and their horrors recalled strike fear into anyone who takes
the time to reflect on the hysteria and injustice which was present
at the time. Many historians claim that by studying history people
can learn from past mistakes and then avoid repeating them.
Yet, the War on Drugs, however, is still being fought. The death
toll is rising; people are still losing their liberties, and
even George W. Bush has called the War on Drugs the "biggest
public policy failure of the 90s." Today the Salem Witch
trials are seen as a tragedy. There is no doubt that the War
on Drugs will someday earn the same status.
Editor's Note: Bob Newland of South Dakota
directed this young person to information and resources on the
drug war for her writing project. Kudos to Bob for not only pointing
the way to this student, but also for showing us what one-on-one
teaching and organizing looks like.