The War on Drugs started much earlier than most people think. The first salvo on the War on Drugs was the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act of 1909. Opium was banned for recreational purposes. The next volley was the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, which regulated and taxed cocaine and heroin. Additional laws adding further restrictions and bans were passed through the 1920s.
The true start of the War on Drugs was the creation of the The Federal Narcotics Bureau (a precursor to the DEA) in 1930. At that time it wasn’t an independent agency as we see The real start of the War on Drugs was the creation of The Federal Narcotics Bureau (a precursor to the DEA) in 1930. At that time, it wasn’t an independent agency, as we see with the DEA today; it was part of the Treasury Department. On paper, the agency was tasked with going after untaxed income from drugs, not the drugs themselves. But there’s a catch. You couldn’t obtain the tax stamps; they didn’t exist. Because there were no tax stamps, it was an effective ban on the sale and possession of the drugs.
The key isn’t so much the bureau itself, but who they appointed to lead the agency as the first commissioner — Harry J. Anslinger.
Harry J. Anslinger
Anslinger didn’t do much at first as there wasn’t much to do. He sought to strengthen existing drug laws and add harsher penalties for non-compliance. Anslinger’s essential problem was that there simply weren’t enough heroin and cocaine dealers and users to go after. So Anslinger did what so many bureaucrats do, which is to find a way to grow his power and scope. His first target was cannabis.
Now you may be asking, “How exactly is that racist?” At this point, it’s probably best to leave you with a few quotes to get an idea of the type of man Anslinger was.
Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.
There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.
Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with (white) female students, smoking [marijuana] and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy.
…the increase [in drug addiction] is practically 100 percent among Negro people.
Two Negros took a girl fourteen years old and kept her for two days under the influence of hemp. Upon recovery she was found to be suffering from syphilis.
Harry J. Anslinger
Ain’t he a peach?
War on Cannabis
Beginning around 1934, Anslinger ramped up the Appeal to Fear rhetoric against cannabis. Here are some of his quotes around that time period.
Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.
You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother.
Some people will fly into a delirious rage, and they are temporarily irresponsible and may commit violent crimes. Other people will laugh uncontrollably. It is impossible to say what the effect will be on any individual.
Harry J. Anslinger
Anslinger went to Congress and did the typical song and dance we see today. Present the outlier cases (or completely fabricate the narrative), have the “victims” testify to Anslinger went to Congress and did the typical song and dance we see today. Present the outlier cases (or completely fabricate the narrative), have the “victims” testify to Congress in typically weepy fashion, draft the bill, and have it pushed through. The result of this song and dance was the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. Following the same template used for heroin and cocaine, the law required a tax to be paid on sales, denoted by a tax stamp. Like cocaine and heroin, the stamp didn’t exist, making all sales illegal.
You may be wondering why cannabis has taken on the name marihuana in government documents. Well, Anslinger was an equal opportunity racist. By changing to the Spanish name, he could also gain from anti-Mexican sentiment.
Anslinger’s claims regarding cannabis did not go unchallenged. In 1939, New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia set up a commission to study the effects of “marihuana.” The La Guardia Committee’s report refuted every claim that Anslinger had made.
Anslinger was enraged and went on the offensive. He claimed the study was “unscientific.” Anslinger did what bureaucrats do when they’re threatened. He rallied the sympathetic side of the press and worked behind the scenes to debunk and bury the report. Given that we still have a federal ban on cannabis, he was successful.
If you combine his “marijuana is violence” rhetoric with his racist speech, it’s pretty clear who Anslinger was targeting. Keep in mind that this man was the head of the Federal Narcotics Bureau for 32 years. You don’t think that the agency wasn’t ingrained with racism at its very core?
His racism was quite profound, and it permeated his words and actions. In Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, Johann Hari writes:
“Jazz was the opposite of everything Harry Anslinger believed in. It is improvised, relaxed, free-form. It follows its own rhythm. Worst of all, it is a mongrel music made up of European, Caribbean and African echoes, all mating on American shores. To Anslinger, this was musical anarchy and evidence of a recurrence of the primitive impulses that lurk in black people, waiting to emerge. ‘It sounded,’ his internal memos said, ‘like the jungles in the dead of night.’”
To further his goals, he targeted prominent black entertainers to make an example out of them. The first targets to incur his wrath? Jazz musicians. Jazz was growing in popularity and nothing like some high profile arrests of a group he hated to make his agency look good. Most famously he waged war on Billie Holiday. Billie Holiday was never silent about the racism she experienced in her life, and as a result, she became Anslinger’s favorite target.
Holiday started using heroin in the 1940s, and when Anslinger caught wind of that fact, he had an agent assigned to tail her and frame her buying or using heroin. Holiday was first arrested in 1947 and sentenced to a year in prison where she had to go cold turkey. As a result of her arrest, she lost her cabaret license and was unable to sing anywhere where alcohol was served.
To get an idea of the depth of Anslinger’s hatred, he even had her arrested while she was dying at New York’s Metropolitan Hospital of liver and heart disease in 1959. Anslinger ordered agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to arrest her for drug possession.
Billie Holiday wasn’t his only target. Other jazz luminaries such as Ray Charles, Chet Baker, and Sonny Rollins were all arrested, convicted, and sent to the Lexington Prison Farm to clean up.
The treatment of entertainers wasn’t even-handed. Judy Garland was also addicted to heroin and other drugs and was handled with kid gloves.
With informants planted all over Hollywood, Anslinger knew what drugs Garland was doing and where she was getting them, so one day he intervened by visiting the heads of MGM and insisting they send her to a sanatorium, saying, “I believed her to be a fine woman caught in a situation that could only destroy her.” He was told they had $14 million invested in her and had no intention of giving her the time off she needed. An unsuccessful suicide attempt—even if only a cry for help—finally persuaded them that the best way to protect their investment was to send her to rehab. Later, Anslinger would imply that he had played the major role in helping Garland get clean, but that may also have been just a story only he believed.
The End of Harry’s Reign, but not the War.
In 1962 after 32 years as the head of the Bureau of Narcotics, Anslinger retired at the mandatory retirement age of 70. Contrary to rumors, he was not ousted by Kennedy. Kennedy asked him to stay on until they could find a successor. As we all know, the War on Drugs has not only persisted but has escalated. The first escalation happened a mere eight years later under Richard Nixon. That is a story for Part II of the series.