August 4, 2020

The Drug War Out My Window

One day last week, the government helicopters flew so low over our little village in eastern Kentucky, they shook the house. For most of half an hour, they buzzed around the three creeks that come together into a river right below us. They are looking for drugs, as they do every summer. This is part of life where I live. The drug war goes on all year long, because drugs- from marijuana patches to meth labs- are everywhere.

Southeastern Kentucky is one of those places where the drug war isn’t an exercise in “what if?” It’s the reality of “what is.” Marijuana is grown as a cash crop by many of the mountain men I see on the roadsides in their pickup trucks. It is the income crop that allows more than a few in our county to buy the four-wheeler, or pay for the prefab home. Most of the local students in my classroom at a Christian school all live with several drug dealers in their extended families. They accept this as part of life. Clear ideas of good and evil get very blurry here on the ground.

The visits of the government helicopters and the high profile drug busts in our area have done little, if anything, to change the culture. This is still an area where rebel flags are flown, not in support of the confederacy, but in a statement of defiance of the DEA and any law enforcement official who puts his ambition above the code of “you do your thing, I’ll do mine.” A sheriff in a neighboring county was assassinated by local drug dealers. His decade long war on drugs had been modestly successful, but he paid by being shot like a dog while carrying two pies to his car at a picnic.

A few weeks ago, the streets of our county seat were filled with thousands of people, mostly from local churches, marching in an “Anti-Drug Rally.” Anger is palpable in our county over drugs and what they are doing to this community. Meth is destroying their children. There is cartoonishly gruesome violence in the newspaper every week, almost completely drug related. These marchers want a funded treatment center. They want more aggressive law enforcement and prosecution. They want local officials to know they will vote their feelings on this one.

Most of the folks raising pot are libertarian in sentiment, if not affiliation. They are doing what their culture has taught them to do for two centuries: make do with what you can, because there are no good jobs coming to this county. They want to be left alone, and the local resentment towards overly assertive policing is very real. “Cooperhead Road” isn’t just a song here, and Kentucky State troopers know it from experience. It’s a dangerous place to go looking for drugs.

The folks marching in the streets are conservative Christians. They believe the drug war is a moral crusade. It’s an extension of the Lordship of Christ. To them, drug dealers are criminals and predators. Their victims are our children and our loved ones. It is the drug dealers who are keeping factories and businesses from locating here. The drug culture is killing the dreams of young people and stigmatizing the mountains yet again. It is the drug culture that makes it difficult for schools and restaurants and anything resembling tourism. Anyone with a child in this community lives in mortal fear of the reach of drugs into that young life.

Those Christians will vote for whoever promises the most help and the most money. State and national politicians came down for the rally, and, of course, said all the right things. The families that profit from the drug trade have their voice as well. In any election, the word goes out on who to vote for, and while drugs are never mentioned, you don’t have to be a genius to know what is being said: some people will be up in our business less than others.

Meanwhile, I look at my high school students. They glamorize pot and the drug culture in general. They laugh at movies about drug use. Pot is in their music and on their clothing. They seem far more interested in marijuana than in alcohol, because marijuana is presented as the symbol of a culture of freedom and autonomy. They can argue the various medicinal benefits of marijuana, but can’t tell you the name of a Supreme Court justice.

More than a few of my students have parents who are incarcerated because of drugs, or are drug addicts. Some have lost parents, siblings and friends to drug abuse and violence. These students don’t speak up as much, but when they do, their testimony of the effects of drugs in their world is eloquent.

Just up the road are two federal prisons. Drug offenders dominate the population, many serving stiff sentences that seem totally out of proportion for the transgression. Young men not yet twenty serving twenty year sentences for selling pot. But many are now clean for the first time. Many have changed their lives and are eager to live lives without drugs. There seem to be few advocates of legalization among the inmates. Most of them believe drugs are a scourge and a curse to their communities.

I am confused. I see the wrongheadedness and ineptness of the “war on drugs.” The helicopters and high-profile arrests do not impress me that anything really changes. But legalization seems absurd, even suicidal. Our community has seen countless lives ruined by drug use and drug violence. Will legalization really stop this? Will it really change the culture? It’s hard to believe that such ingrained evil would vanish in a rising tide of freedom to use and sell.

I’m still working on this one. Still reading, thinking, and studying. What is real compassion? What is real wisdom? What is real love? Both sides are human beings in a mixture of wright and wrong. I can become the voice of the fearful or the optimistic, the moralistic or the realistic. Inside, I am still looking for the answers. I’m sure I’m not alone.

(Maxim Magazine did a story on the drug culture in this part of the country. I’ll vouch that it is overwhelmingly true.)


  1. I enjoyed reading your essay on the drug war. This is a very problematic topic, as you are very much aware. Before I make my following comments I want it to be clear that I do not do drugs, nor do I think others should engage in doing them either. It can lead to a path that most find very difficult to get off, if they ever do. Having said that I would submit that I do not feel like this so called “war on drugs” is real in the truest sense, it is Orwellian at best. Law enforcement is obligated to make a few busts every so often to make it look like they are really doing something about drugs in the community, but it is politically motivated rather than actual concern for the well being of any of the citizens. I submit that if they were really that concerned it could be stopped. Countless politicians profit off of the illegal drug trade that comes into this country from third world countries, hence why I think they do not want it legal. Drugs use to be legal in this country, and the truth of why they were made illegal was more out of their concern, at the time, of minorities using them and not being able to control them. Alcohol was legal then illegal and now legal again – hmm. When alcohol was illegal it did not stop the use of it, it just made the acquiring of it more difficult for some, and the same is true for drugs. Can a government that has a separation between Church and State legislate morals? I would say no. Can they use this type of legislation to attract a certain voting block? Yes. The Church is the Open Door that offers the better Way of choosing to follow the Lord instead of the World. No one should be forced to follow the World or the Church. The thing that upsets me with a lot of Christians is trying to force their views down someone elseÂ’s throat (Your article does not do this, it is very well written and shows a sincere concern for the problem in your community). This in my view leaves a bad taste in a lot of peopleÂ’s mouths about Christianity. Does this mean that the Church should be silent on issues? No. Can bashing gay people, prostitutes, people who use drugs convert anybody? Doubtful. Love the sinner not the sin is the cliché’ and I believe that this is true. It seems to me that Jesus had more to say about “so called” church leaders trying to propagate their interpretation of following the law on the people that it made it a stumbling block. Jesus showed people the true Way which was to bear their cross and follow him, but he never forced anybody, and I do not recall any passage promoting a revamping of the social order of Rome or Palestine. He called for a revamping of oneÂ’s personal life in dedication to God. If Christians were sincere in their efforts to do something about drugs they would drop their picket signs and go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in with sincere compassion and love. Trying to get the government to do something that theoretically (in our system) is not its responsibility to do seems to almost be a copout. There are bigger issues at stake in our country, such as jobs leaving the country, lack of sufficient health care, declining education system, etc. Alcoholism and drug use, along with a host of other problems, go up radically when the unemployment rate is up. So it seems to me if we wanted to picket something it should be the White House with regards to the problems, which I mentioned above, that is escalating these other problems of drug use and the like. Issues like drug use do not happen in a vacuum. The understanding of the REAL problems, in our world, that lead to these issues is the problem. These problems our government has the responsibility to do something about, and we as citizens should hold them to task on. Give a person who is on drugs hope and love and this will have a better chance of leading him to God than will any law.

    Brother Owen.