The Real War on Families: U.S. Child Welfare Law in the Shadow of Drug Prohibition

This post is the first in a three-part series on laws related to drugs, women, and families, written in observation of Women’s History Month. The series is based on original research conducted by three talented women who graced my historical seminar in law at Ohio State University during autumn 2021. 

Today’s post summarizes the excellent work of Karen Augenstein. As she writes, the inherent value of family is deeply rooted in U.S. law; yet in legislating drug control over the past 50 years, “the importance of family was forgotten in favor of punishing those with substance abuse issues in the worst way possible: taking away their children.” The paper covers three major acts of Congress (in 1974, 1980, and 1997) that form the basis of child welfare law. These laws prescribed punishments for parental drug use that led to unprecedented rates of family separation and an “explosion of the foster care system,” while parental incarceration resulted in “harsh, impossible requirements for reunification.”  

Read more

Salvadoran Mara Gang Members and Drug Use in the 1980s

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post is by Prince Vlad, a pseudonym the author (a public school teacher by day) uses to protect their identity. For an ongoing research project, they have recorded nearly 150 life histories with men and women from several different Salvadoran and US gangs found across El Salvador. Portions of this research have been presented at national and international conferences.

In the last half of the 1980s, youth groups known popularly as maras emerged as an issue of public concern in El Salvador. Contemporary newspapers, drawing heavily from law enforcement information, raised the alarm and cast the maras as juvenile criminal drug users. In 1988, for example, Diario Latino described the Mara Gallo as a “juvenile band…  dedicating themselves to stealing, rape, and smoking marijuana” [1]. A year later El Diario de Hoy charged that the “juvenile band ‘Mara Chancleta’” was made up of “drug addicts, thieves, and huelepegas [glue sniffers]” [2]. That same year El Mundo warned its readership about a gang of sixty “huelepegas and thieves” known as the Mara Morazán which operated around the San Salvador capital [3].

Mara Children Image
Issue of Diario Latino from September 4, 1994, with an image of young members of a mara street gang. The headline reads, “”Cesta Proposes Solution to Avoid that Glue Being Used as a Drug,”

Media accounts, although superficial and sensational, were grounded on facts. Ricardo, a co-founder of La Morazán, summed up the eight years he spent he with his mara: “I was robbing, I was smoking. I was on glue. I was on drugs. I drank. When it was time to drink I drank. And when not, just the jar of glue, right?” [4].

José similarly framed his six years as a member of the Mara Gallo using terms of drugs and delinquency. “I stole for drugs, for glue, for alcohol, to be around girls. I was in a dark world [mundo tenebroso],” Ernesto said, adding “but it didn’t end there, right?” [5].

Ricardo’s and José’s testimonies are from a collection of interviews I have recorded with nearly 150 male and female active and ex-gang members from El Salvador for a historically grounded study about the origins and evolution of the country’s contemporary gang phenomenon. The subject of drug use was discussed by all narrators. These personal narratives—and my continued research project—reveal intimate details about the causes, consequences, and nature of drug use among Salvadoran gang members across multiple generations.

Read more

Just Say No Redux: The Elks Drug Awareness Program

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Michael Brownrigg. Michael recently received his PhD in US history from Northwestern University, where he studied the relationship between emotion, white masculinity, and capitalism to explain the emergence of an antinarcotic consensus in America at the turn of the twentieth century. 

Elroy the Elk, the official mascot of the Elks Drug Awareness Program (DAP), with an antidrug message from the program’s What Heroes Do comic book.

While in Washington DC for a Community Coalition Conference in 1999, Kent Gade, Director of the Elks National Drug Awareness Program, happened upon a speech given by John Lunt, a former Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Demand Reduction Coordinator. As he listened to Lunt address a room of DEA agents, Gade was drawn to the agency’s strategies for reducing substance abuse in American communities. After meeting with Lunt, Gade pursued a formal alliance with the DEA that would provide official “credibility” for the Elks National Drug Awareness Program and “strengthen the program’s affiliations with other groups”—organizations with far superior resources for combating drug addiction such as PRIDE Youth Programs and the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Allying with the DEA and affiliated groups, Gade believed, would vastly increase his organization’s informational and material resources and aid in producing more engaging and creative antidrug content. As he put it, “The DEA provides us with excellent materials and dynamic speakers. Our partnership is a tremendous asset to our efforts. The agency bends over backward for us. They are absolutely invaluable to our program.”

The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was founded in New York City in 1868. Early members sought an exclusive social club where white men could fraternize and indulge in leisurely activities unencumbered by city laws that regulated the hours of drinking and smoking establishments.

Read more

Trick or Treat? On Laced Candy and Other Drug Myths

This year, medical marijuana is on the ballot in my home state of Florida, and it’s likely to pass: the latest statewide poll shows 77 percent of Floridians support the proposed constitutional amendment. But the remaining 33 percent aren’t taking this lying down. On Monday, some county sheriffs held a press conference ostensibly on Halloween …

Read more

Why did the FBI stop their investigation of Straight, Incorporated?

Editor’s Note: Today we welcome a post from Marcus Chatfield, who has spent years studying Straight, Inc. Chatfield is a recent graduate of Goddard College, where he received an Individualized Bachelor of Arts degree in the prevention of institutional child abuse. His undergraduate thesis, Institutionalized Persuasion, was self-published in December, 2014. He is a prospective grad student living in Florida. Enjoy!

straight-logo-300x300

The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) recently arranged for the release of documents from the FBI’s investigation of Straight, Inc., a controversial teen treatment program. An initial Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the author in 2010 received no response and the collection was only released after subsequent requests and inquiries by the OGIS. After the FBI reviewed more than 1,224 pages in their possession, 970 were released with redactions and 254 pages were deleted, withheld by their Record/Information Dissemination Section. Almost all of these records were accumulated between 1992 and 1994 during a Grand Jury investigation that initiated in the Middle District of Florida. The investigation focused on fraudulent financial activities within the Straight, Inc. organization and the documents clearly state that federal authorities had evidence of criminal insurance fraud committed by Straight executives (p.55). Perhaps even more important, the documents seem to indicate that the FBI’s investigation was stopped before agents had a chance to review all of the evidence or explore all relevant leads (p.109-111).

Read more