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Publisher: James Threadgill
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Founded: 21 August 2012 Webutation
Open Letter to Right

America’s War on Drugs: An Ongoing Moral Panic

America's War on Drugs is not a war on drugs. It's a war on people.

America’s War on Drugs by Wayne James

November 9, 2011 in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico narcotics traffickers killed and beheaded a blogger. In Juarez Mexico, “widely believed to be the most dangerous city on earth” as many as two dozen killings in single day due to drug violence and gun trafficking is not uncommon (Putzel 2011).

In April 2004 a turf war between competing narcotics trafficking gangs in Rio de Janeiro in Rocinha favela, South America’s largest slum, escalated into a five night ordeal in which twelve people were killed (Madarasz 2004).

Massachusetts has experienced a steep increase in youth addicted to pharmaceutical pain killers containing oxycodone, a synthetic opiate. Prescription drug overdose has exceeded automobile accidents as the leading cause of accidental death (Zeller 2011).

As the above depictions of the War on Drugs (WOD) show, to call it a failure would be an understatement. Aside from failing in its mission, the WOD causes harm due to unintended side effects, including: huge profits for terrorists and criminal gangs; corruption of law enforcement, judicial, and banking organizations; destabilization of democratic governments; and states staggering under the financial burden of bloated prison systems (Cole 2011), and the pain extends around the world. Mexico has 60,000 dead as result of the last five years of the US led WOD (Papa 2012). Given our willingness to prosecute this policy despite its utter failure, we must ask: What drives the WOD and in what fetid soil did it take root?

In the “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” Max Weber pointed out unique ascetic principals, including diligence in calling, self-denial, frugality, sobriety, honesty which gave rise to the modern capitalist economy. American Protestantism—informed by the dark musings of John Calvin and the Puritans, has a long history of religious and racial intolerance as well (Weber 1930). While the WOD gained national prominence in the early twentieth century when Southern Protestants, eager for a new method of controlling former slaves, and Northern Protestants, reacting to Irish Catholic and Jewish immigrants, forged an unholy alliance it roots go back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. A product of nineteenth century Protestant hegemony, the WOD including its various incarnations over the past century is a continuing moral panic devised to wield fundamentalist Protestant prerogative power.

The temperance movement was “an overtly religious and specifically Protestant crusade” within which “the Christian Right” sought to “legislate morality” on the nation” and served as “one of the crucibles in which Protestant hegemony was forged and reproduced” (Harding 2009). In 1810 at Andover Seminary in Massachusetts a group of evangelical Calvinist ministers began “a series of pamphlets against the use of all alcohol” (Harding 2009). Justin Edwards and well known Calvinist minister Lyman Beecher formed the American Temperance Society (ATS) in 1826 with the goal of “teetotal abstinence” (Harding 2009). The ATS soon became the dominant antebellum temperance society, succeeding in passing prohibition laws with three statewide campaigns (Harding 2009). Other temperance organizations also flourished among white Protestants, African Americans being barred from membership, and “sobriety came to be seen as sign of a true conversion” (Harding 2009). Protestant morality marked the temperance movement as an implicitly religious undertaking (Harding 2009). Early temperance movements—often colored by rabid anti-Catholicism—assured Protestant morality would “predominate culturally and politically” (Harding 2009). Thus the antebellum temperance movement like the Christian Right movement which was responsible for bringing the drug war to fever pitch during the Reagan-Bush era was based on white Protestant moralism in a morally charged “culture war” environment (Harding 2009).

After the Civil War, the temperance movement soon regained its strength and a number of new temperance organizations, such as the Women’s Crusades, and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) flourished (Harding 2009). These post war groups advocated “total abstinence from alcohol” (Harding 2009). Irish Catholic immigrants, depicted as drunken idlers, faced fervent religious persecution which informed the temperance movement (Cohen 2006). While the underlying moral reasoning demanding abstinence remained, temperance groups began to focus on legislation as the route to an alcohol free society rather than moral persuasion (Harding 2009). Soon Northern Protestants, many who had been abolitionists a few years earlier, and white southern Protestants would find themselves strange bedfellows in a devil’s bargain based on anti-Catholicism, Jim Crow, and Protestant morality (Cohen 2009). But the racial and ethnic hate did not end with black racism and anti-Catholicism. By the time of the Gilded Age racial stereotypes associated “deviousness, slovenliness, or lustfulness” with “Catholic inebriation, African American intoxication or Chinese addictions” (Cohen 2006).

As the temperance movement reached its nadir, the south was emerging from reconstruction and beginning to implement Jim Crow legislation to exercise prerogative power over its African American minority. Race, religion, and ethnicity were “the driving force behind the first laws criminalizing drug use” (Cohen 2006). African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Catholic Irish and Italians, and many European immigrants, “considered racial others” by the dominant Protestant group amplified fear of “drugs and drug users” (Cohen 2006). The first drug laws, passed in San Francisco in the 1870s, were racially motivated, banning whites from opium smoking to discourage racial mixing. Cocaine, introduced to African American dock workers to increase stamina for the heavy work, had become “a central ingredient in the nightlife of African American and interracial urban centers and red-light districts” (Cohen 2006). “Reformers and white supremacists” fanned the flames of fear with vivid depictions of “an ominous mix of sex, intoxication, jazz, and race” which “generated pornographic nightmares of black men raping white women who had been seduced by sinful pleasures” and threatening the “Jim Crow racial order then under construction” (Cohen 2006). A manufactured “Negro Cocaine Menace” became a central issue in the south as newspapers across the region began printing sensational stories about black cocaine users raping white women and committing other crimes (Cohen 2006).


US Incarceration Cost $60 Billion a Year Wikimedia Commons KJBurns.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the moral panic over the casual use of cocaine by African Americans had reached full frenzy and the southern states enacted legislation banning cocaine by 1903, criminalizing cocaine users (Cohen 2006). Under Southern drug legislation “cocaine users—universally assumed to be black—confronted prison time nearly a decade before any southern state took similar action against opium, morphine, and heroin, the drugs of choice for most white addicts” (Cohen 2006). But the drug war was still in its infancy and would soon find wider support, taking form at the national level when other states began to emulate the southern strategy (Cohen 2006).  Though much of the legislation passed in the progressive era was positive, this was also an era of racial and ethnic conflict where “northern nativists battled against the flood of immigrant Catholics and Jews,” western whites “attacked the Chinese with legal bans and racist pogroms,” and southern whites were busy erecting the Jim Crow system (Cohen 2006). The WOD united white Protestants across the nation in a “crusade for racial, moral, and national purity,” and drugs and drug users were demonized and criminalized (Cohen 2006).

Ultimately, drug legislation provided the dominant white Protestant culture with a legally justifiable method for applying prerogative power against minorities and became a lasting aspect of a Protestant hegemony already fading into history (Harding 2009). Nevertheless, the WOD would go on in poor neighborhoods—mostly unnoticed—for the next fifty years. The notable exception was the 1930s “Reefer Madness” campaign, named after an educational exploitation film created by a Protestant church group. The anti-marijuana campaign like the previous anti-drug campaigns relied on sensationalism, fear, and Protestant morality, including the religious tactic of demonization of both the marijuana plant and marijuana users. In 1937 the Marijuana Tax Stamp Act extended the drug war to include “tens of thousands of Mexican migrant farm workers” (Cohen 2006).

Though Lyndon Johnson was the first to connect drug use with social unrest in 1968, it was Richard Nixon who declared “War on Drugs,” signing the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in 1971 and for the first time targeting middle class whites, mostly college aged youth protesting the Viet Nam War in particular and the Protestant work ethic, in general (Hickman 2011). Thus political dissidents were targeted by the prerogative power structure used against non-whites and ethnic Europeans since the turn of the century. Protestant fundamentalism, alive and well in the south and rural heartland, informed the WOD rhetoric, linking drug use to rebellion and sexual promiscuity. Demonization of drugs and drug users cast drug use and addiction—the drug warriors have generally painted all use in the same terms—as a moral failing. The drug war which had been effect since 1914 was revitalized with the newly created Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE) and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Even so the public was growing as weary of the drug war as they had of Viet Nam and as the decade came to a close decriminalization of marijuana was beginning to take hold and change seemed near. Jimmy Carter campaigned on a promise to end marijuana prohibition but failed to do so.

Since the apparent end of Protestant hegemony in the early twentieth century, conservative fundamentalist Protestants had built “a powerful infrastructure of local, regional, and national institutions and networks that elaborated the world in their terms” and it was now emerging as a national movement (Harding 2009). Once again Protestant fundamentalism held a prominent role in American politics. Under the fundamentalist Protestant mandate of the Moral Majority, narcotics law enforcement shifted to overdrive with Ronald Reagan at the helm. Nancy Reagan initiated a much publicized—and much criticized for dumbing down the debate—“Just say No” campaign to warn youth about the dangers of drug addiction (Drug War Chronicle 2011). While the newly invigorated drug war did take a more nuanced approach, the Protestant dictate against violating the sanctity of the sober mind still informed drug warrior rhetoric, portraying drug addiction as a moral failing.

Flames engulf a building following the outbreak of hostilities between the Panamanian Defense Force and U.S. forces during Operation Just Cause

Flames engulf a building following the outbreak of hostilities between the Panamanian Defense Force and U.S. forces during Operation Just Cause

Following the Reagan presidency, George H. W. Bush continued to prosecute the drug war avidly, invading Panama to bring down reputed drug kingpin Manuel Noriega and relying on “images of moral degeneration and deviance” (Mena, Hobbs 2009).

In the years since the end of the presidency of George H. W. Bush, little has changed in US drug policy. Though deemphasized under Clinton, drug arrests continued to take place at an alarming pace. George W. Bush, who rode into office on the votes of conservative Protestants, made Protestant morality the centerpiece of his anti-drug strategy and championed faith based initiatives as the pathway to salvation from drug addiction (Armentano 2003). Bush believed drug users, especially marijuana users, needed to experience a religious conversion to achieve abstinence (Armentano 2003). Under Bush’s DEA chief, Karen Tandy, numerous religious based efforts took place, one dubbed “Pray for Your Children” (Armentano 2003)—strangely echoing the original title “Tell Your Children” of the 1930s anti-marijuana movie “Reefer Madness.”

In keeping with its fundamentalist Protestant base, the Bush administration planned yet another escalation of the WOD when fate intervened in the form of the 911 terror attacks. A May 2001 Department of Justice guide for 2003 budget named drug trafficking a priority objective and made no mention of counterterrorism. Acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard appealed to Attorney General Ashcroft for counterterrorism enhancements, but on September 10, Ashcroft, an avowed Protestant fundamentalist, rejected the appeal (911 Commission 2004). And despite the concomitant change of focus due to the terror attacks, Ashcroft devoted a considerable amount of time to “Operation Pipe Dreams” which netted among fifty other online glass pipe dealers celebrity marijuana activist Tommy Chong who had been specifically targeted (Ashcroft 2003).

Today, the moralism of seventeenth century Puritanism furnishes the moral rationale used for the general policing of the poor (Arnold 2005). In a more nuanced view of Marx’s “ascetic double standard” (1844), Arnold argues Protestant inspired ascetic values apply to all but do so unequally and in different forms, “a double standard operating in ascetic demands and normative values” under which welfare and policing of the poor are a compassionless exercise of prerogative power “justified by an ascetic double standard” (Arnold 2005). And from the viewpoint of the legal field there is a double standard at work in our courts as well. According to psychologist Nathan Brown, a biased judicial system is more likely to attribute criminal behavior by higher socioeconomic individuals to situation than character (2002). In this system the poor are seen as criminals and the well-off are seen as patients (Brown 2002). Indeed, the differences between white and black incarceration rates are startling. As signers of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), the United States criminal justice system has been lax in carrying out the stated ICERD aims. In 2001 and again in 2008 the committee expressed concerns about the racial imbalance in the incarceration rates of blacks and Hispanics. While whites commit most drug crimes, minorities are incarcerated at much higher rates. The WOD, then, is not a war against inanimate objects; it is war against people—usually people of color (Fellner 2009).


Ashcroft John. Operations Pipe Dreams And Headhunter Put Illegal Drug Paraphernalia Sellers Out Of Business. News Release February 24, 2003. Retrieved November 14, 2011 from the US Drug Enforcement Administration web site: Operations Pipe Dreams And Headhunter Put Illegal Drug Paraphernalia Sellers Out Of Business..

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Armentano, Paul. Bush’s Born-Again Drug War. AlterNet. 2003. Retrieved November 16, 2011, from The AlterNet Web site:  Bush’s Born-Again Drug War.

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Cohen, Michael M. Jim Crow’s Drug War: Race, Coca Cola, and the Southern Origins of Drug Prohibition. Southern Cultures.  Chapel Hill:  Fall 2006. Vol. 12 , Iss. 3; pg. 55.

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Papa, Anthony. Mexico/US Caravan to Arrive in New York Calling for the End of Failed Drug War. Huffington Post. 09/05/2012. Mexico/US Caravan to Arrive in New York Calling for the End of Failed Drug War.

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James Threadgill

James Threadgill

James Threadgill was born in Houston, Texas, and has lived near Houston his entire life—except during military service. He attended public schools where he was active in student sports.

James took the GED following the first semester of his senior year and enlisted with the U. S. Army. An expert marksman, he served as a Combat Engineer in the 1st. Cavalry Division. After, James worked for the family business for a few years, then, at the age of 33, entered college. He graduated a Bachelor of Science—Summa Cum Laude—in Human Behavior and later a Master of Arts in Psychology—earning Psi Chi and Phi Kappa Phi honors—at the University of Houston-Clear Lake.

A professional web developer and designer, James has been published as himself and as Wayne James in several genres, including: speculative, crime, and literary fiction, as well as poetry, essay, and political opinion and won awards for his writing, research, and photography, including a Texas Intercollegiate Press Award for literary short story.

James' fiction first appeared in Raconteur in 1995, and his poetry in Lucidity in 1996. His collection of poetry and short fiction, When Only the Moon Rages, released byHadrosaur Productions in 2001, is available on Amazon. Most recently his work appeared in Tales of the Talisman Winter 2010 and Spring 2011 issues. The dark poem Voice Mail appeared in Lone Star Legacy, Winter 2014. In addition to writing, James works in many media, including: photography, charcoal, sketch, Flash animation, computer graphics, and makes and paints Native American Drums.

My Kinda Pope

“And I saw a beast rising up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and on his horns ten crowns, and on his heads a blasphemous name.” Revelation 13:1-3.

And the beast called itself GOP and written upon its seven heads are: Avarice, Cowardice, Entitlement, Homophobia, Ignorance, Misogyny, and Racism. And the meek shall cry out in agony. And the beast shall be slain by the Lamb, in their name. And the beast's name shall be erased from the minds of men forever.