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 help people.

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 sin.

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 prosecution.

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 certain occupations.

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.