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Weekend Reads: The Many James Browns Edition

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Most weeks, a story about someone like James Brown getting hopped up on PCP and engaging in a South Carolina-to-Georgia interstate police chase – as he did on September 24, 1988 – would be prime fodder for a column. We might retrace the way the police, the public, and the media responded to Brown’s actions before delving into the larger implications of Brown’s prior “straight edge” views toward drug use, his well-publicized support for the Republican Party, and his equally well-publicized civil rights work. In the right hands, it could be a fruitful look into an enigmatic man who, to some extent, mirrored America’s own schizophrenic relationship with drugs.

Another James Brown we won’t be addressing.

While profiling the “Godfather of Soul” would be fun, however, it wouldn’t get us any closer to knowing the perspectives of those people early social historians referred to as the “inarticulate.” By looking at James Brown, Grammy-winner and national icon, we get little sense of what drug culture looks like “on the ground.” Through a series of vignettes, however, we can better appreciate the funny, stupid, curious, and cruel aspects of drug culture. Luckily for us, the last month has seen a rash of news stories about James Brown and drugs. Not that James Brown, of course, as the famed Barnwell, South Carolina-born bandleader passed away on Christmas Day, 2006. No, the news has reported on a multitude of other James Browns, whose various drug-related misadventures can give us a more holistic of what drugs mean on a societal level. 

Let us start in the Oxon Hill neighborhood of Washington, where one finds James Brown, 42, an otherwise-anonymous member of the D.C. underclass who was arrested for participating in a crack cocaine drug ring. According to the Washington Times, a group of six drug dealers had been “flooding the streets of one southeast D.C. neighborhood with cocaine,” conducting “many of their large-scale transactions in shopping centers,” where Mr. Brown collected up to 31 grams of coke at a time. He would then take it home and cook it into crack before “hustling it on corners in Congress Heights.” Police arrested Mr. Brown and five other suspects, seizing handguns, a store of crack, a kilogram of powder cocaine, and $40,000 in cash. Washington’s James Brown, who will face up to seven years in prison, would surely relate to the dilemma faced by one James Brown, 44, of New Orleans, who found himself arrested near Galveston, Texas after police found two kilos of coke – worth approximately $140,000 – in his car. Mr. Brown and his passenger, Stephanie Ortiz, 23, have been charged with possession of a controlled substance.

The El Paso County Jail’s Brutalist style is surely fitting.

Eight hundred miles from Galveston, but still in the Lone Star State, the unexpected death of 26 year-old Army Sgt. James Brown, who had been serving time in the El Paso County Jail, has made statewide news. Brown had checked in on July 13 to serve a two-day DWI sentence, only to expire the next day after receiving a sedative meant to calm has “combative” behavior. While the prison’s medical staff has attributed Brown’s death to sickle cell complications, the soldier’s family believe that a mix of Lorazepam – the medication prison doctors used to sedate Brown – and Haloperidol – a medication Brown had been using to treat psychotic disorders and his explosive temper – might have been what caused his death.

Meanwhile, in the greater Chicago area, James Brown was on the other side of the bench, presiding over a case involving the death of newsstand owner Robert Butler. Driver Anthony Castillo, 23, struck and killed Butler with his car, leading police to find cocaine and marijuana in Castillo’s 2007 Jeep Laredo. Though prosecutors are still waiting for Castillo’s blood and urine analysis to see if they proceed with charges, Judge Brown has set bail at a hefty $500,000.

Millionaire James Brown

What may be September’s most gonzo drug-related story of any sort occurred in Great Britain, where the Swansea Crown Court heard the case of one James Brown, 45, of southwest Wales. Last week, police stopped Brown’s £120,000 Bentley Continental convertible on a traffic violation, only to find cocaine stashed in the car’s roof and air vents. Surprisingly, Brown’s copious cocaine store was almost certainly meant for personal use only, as the wealthy retiree is reported to have a truly epic cocaine habit. Prosecutor Craig Jones characterized Brown as a real estate agent who was financially successful enough to retire at age 36, at which time he took up a full-time drug habit.  In fact, Brown did so much cocaine on a daily basis that, in addition to developing a life-threatening heart condition, he also suffered major cosmetic problems, as the coke ate away at the cartilage in his nose, causing it to collapse. As is sometimes the case with cocaine enthusiasts, Brown was also reportedly quite paranoid, having holed himself up in the luxury Hurst House Hotel in Laugharne with a stockpile of drugs and guns. This paranoia, defense attorneys argue, was the result of the defendant seeing his cousin murdered by a gang at a different hotel, an event that traumatized the already-jittery millionaire who is now awaiting sentencing.

Can we hope to glean some pattern from these disparate James Brown-related drug news stories? Of course not. These half-dozen cases are a totally random assortment of drug-related events that are interesting precisely because they touch on all matter of drug-related events. We see in them the offender, the victim, the deviant, and the elite. We see the vast expanse of drug culture and its myriad implications, from the pinched street hustler to the maniacal and hedonistic millionaire. If there is any value to this exercise, it is surely the idea that, by looking at these common, forgettable stories, we may better appreciate the bedrock of the War on Drugs. Without these minor news stories stories, society could not adequately perpetuate the fiction that we are beset by drug fiends, reprobates, and psychopaths. Put another way, while the Drug War and mass imprisonment would be just as strong if Fiona Apple and Ryan Leaf had never been born, it could not survive without the presence of society’s many James Browns.


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