Who Exactly is Harry J. Anslinger?

The 'War on Drugs' was the beginning of an 90 year-long vendetta against cannabis. Let's take a closer look into the man who started it all: Harry J. Anslinger. 

We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.

Over the years, the cannabis industry has gone through its fair share of highs and lows. Cannabis was once considered to be a 'go-to' for pain-relief and nausea, going back thousands of years and well into the 19th century. Meanwhile, hemp was a major player in the paper and textiles industry. As a result, the cannabis industry was thriving, that is, until prohibition ended, the 30s began, and Harry J. Anslinger came onto the scene. 

Currently, cannabis legalisation trends are increasing and acceptance rates in the U.S have increased by 30% in the past two decades. The industry has maintained its position as the number one job creator in the U.S., and the latest COVID-19 stimulus bill includes the cannabis industry under the Safe and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Marijuana Banking Act. 

Additionally, since the discovery of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in the 1980s, cannabis is now a front-runner in symptom relief for a multitude of conditions. Epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, ALS, cancer-related pain, and nausea are all qualifying conditions in most of the 33 U.S. where medicinal marijuana is legal.

We're all happy jumping on this cannabis-infused wellness wagon. But as we're building a billion dollar industry (and that's just the Oceania region alone) it is simultaneously demounting the life's work of one Harry J. Anslinger.

It's not hard to guess that he certainly wouldn't be happy with how things have turned out. 

Therefore, it's only fair to take a second to learn more about the man who demonized cannabis in the first place. Let's take a look. 

Harry J. Anslinger: The Early Years

Born in Altoona, Pennsylvania in 1892, Anslinger's experience with drugs occurred early in life. His neighbour had sent 12-year-old Anslinger to the drug store to purchase morphine for his wife. His wife, a morphine addict, was inconsolably screaming from withdrawals.

Anslinger described in his 1961 book, The Murderers, that he was appalled that a substance such as morphine could be available for purchase for anyone – let alone a child. This experience ingrained in Anslinger, that drugs could turn the average person "emotional, hysterical, degenerate, mentally deficient, and vicious."

Anslinger always had a keen eye for adhering to the letter of the law. His first job was at Pennsylvania Railroad when he was a teenager. After a few years he was eventually hired as a detective while completing his degree at Penn State.

One of his most notable achievements was investigating a death claim. His investigations led him to uncovering a fraudulent death claim to a widower from a railroad accident. Anslinger's findings saved the company from a $50,000USD (approx. $1.2million USD today) payout. He was quickly promoted to Captain of Railroad Police. 

Anslinger's disturbance for narcotics, his sixth sense for investigative detail, and devotion to law and order paved the way for a stellar career in law enforcement. Anslinger worked for the U.S. State Department for most of his 20s and 30s, working on drug trafficking cases around the world. As a result, he had a steady hand in sculpting American domestic and international drug policies. 

By 1929, at the age of 37, Anslinger received a promotion: Assistant to the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Prohibition. Anslinger had developed a stellar reputation of being a brute force in the area of drugs and narcotics. He was stern, disciplined, and incorruptible. It's no surprise that these characteristics along with his track-record quickly advanced him up the vocational and political ladder. 

In 1930, President Hoover assigned Anslinger to be the first commissioner of the newly established Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN- now known as the DEA). This position aligned him with congressman, politicians, and industry tycoons to help aid him in his future vendettas (and scandals). 

Anslinger was devoted to narcotics law reform. His work, however, was fuelled by racism and a disgust for an evolving Jazz Age for people of colour. He was a single-minded xenophobe and became a tyrant for an emerging culture. If not for his prejudiced political connections, his vendetta wouldn't have been as successful as it was.

Cannabis became the target, but racism was the catalyst. This is where the infamous 'War on Drugs' began. 

The Origins of The War on Drugs 

It's not hard to imagine why Anslinger hated cannabis so much. His job depended on it. Literally. Anslinger had devoted his entire career to eradicating illegal alcohol trades and narcotics. The man may be considered scum now, but he was good at his job. Damn good. 

According to Johann Hari's book Chasing the Scream: the First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, Anslinger was targeting illicit drugs like cocaine and heroin – a relatively small minority. He had to cast a wider net. 

Prohibition was nearing to an end, and Anslinger was under pressure to maintain the relevance of his job. Not to mention that of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. His answer: criminalise and target cannabis. 

According to Hari, Anslinger used the bureau to push outlandish claims on the effects of the plant; inevitably establishing a trend between cannabis, disorder, and race. Take this famous quote for example: 

"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."Harry J. Anslinger

According to Hari, Anslinger despised the emerging jazz age. It was the representation of everything undesirable, devilish, and unworldly. Jazz was not only associated with African American culture it also went against everything that Anslinger believed in: discipline, order, and tradition. 

The Anslinger's Guide to Illegalising Cannabis

Anslinger used racism as a way to affiliate cannabis with Mexicans and African Americans. He used his connections to propagate a media frenzy pushing the rise of cannabis-driven crime and violence. With Anslinger's connections in Washington politics and with newspaper tycoons, his efforts were notably successful. 

Anslinger would seek out violent crimes committed under the influence of cannabis and repeatedly present them to Congress as a way to illegalise the plant. One famous example of this was in 1933 in which Victor Licata, a 21-year-old Italian-American, killed his entire family with an axe. Licata claimed that his family was trying to "dismember him." 

Though it wasn't a condition at the time, Licata had schizophrenia, a neuro-cognitive disorder that can elicit visual and auditory hallucinations and paranoia. However, according to the newspapers, Licata was intoxicated and addicted to cannabis. 

The Licata case was Anslinger's big break. When he approached congress in 1937, he used the Licata murders as an opportunity to turn a mentally-ill man into a sane person who killed his family because of a new-found addiction to marijuana. 

Licata's mugshot, displaying a crazed young man, became the hero image of Anslinger's campaign. 

Additionally, Anslinger also approached 30 scientists to prove that cannabis caused violence. Only one of the 30 agreed. Naturally, he dismissed everyone who disagreed with him. 

Anslinger's main drive for the legalisation of cannabis was fear. Newspapers began to refer to cannabis as a "killer drug" associated with Mexicans, murder, and mayhem. 

The release of 'Reefer Madness' in 1936 only served to fuel the fear of the drug. In the film, cannabis could turn 'normal' youths into crazed, violent people while suicide and insanity became an explicit repercussion from using the drug. Though Anslinger wasn't behind the production of the film, it certainly helped his cause. 

The Marijuana Tax Act and Billie Holiday

The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was the result of Anslinger's hard work in demonizing cannabis. The propaganda against it was becoming fierce, and the falsified link between cannabis and violence had never seemed truer. The public were scared. Anslinger had won.

Eventually, he was successful in introducing and passing the Marijuana Tax Act . The Act became part of U.S. law on 2nd August 1937. One of Anslinger's driving argument was the Licata case along with one scientists opinion to propose that marijuana was harmful and a danger to society. 

Before the Act passed, cannabis was available for purchase in pharmacies. Now that the Act had passed, it didn't necessarily make cannabis illegal, but it became incredibly hard to acquire. The new law stipulated that: 

  • "Individual possession and sale" of cannabis was now illegal. 
  • Cannabis would remain legal, however, placed under a heavy tax, making it very expensive. 
  • Any company that cultivated, produced, distributed, bought, sold or prescribed cannabis had to pay a tax on it. 
  • Any sale of medicinal cannabis was subjected to keep extensive bookkeeping records. 
  • Anyone that failed to pay the tax would face a $2000 fine (approximately US$36,000).

As you can imagine, the red tape surrounding the sale and prescription of cannabis made it virtually impossible for it to be circulated. It wasn't illegal, but it certainly became the first step into criminalising the plant. 

Amidst all of this, Anslinger remained disturbed by the jazz industry. The bureau was under the belief that jazz music and cannabis were mutually exclusive. The bureau thought that cannabis could warp one's perception of time. Jazz was free-form and without rhythm; a perfect match. 

Just when you think that Anslinger had reached his bounds, he went after the famous jazz vocalist, Billie Holiday. 

In 1939, Billie Holiday sang 'Strange Fruit': a ballad dedicated to the mourning of the racial murders in America. Remember, this is 1939: Billie Holiday was an African American woman singing in front of a mixed-race audience protesting against racism in the United States. It was a big deal. 

Coincidentally, Anslinger and the Bureau began targeting Holiday immediately after her performance. The bureau harassed Holiday, sending undercover agents to gain her trust, raiding her home repeatedly, and charged her with possession of narcotics.

The hunting of Billie Holiday went on for years. Although Holiday suffered from alcohol and substance addiction, some consider that the 'war on drugs' contributed to the stress that led to her eventual death in 1959. 

In Conclusion

Anslinger dedicated the rest of his career to criminalising drugs. In 1951 he played a key role in the passing of the Boggs Act, ensuring compulsory sentencing and further criminalising of cannabis under state laws. 

He remained in the Federal Bureau of Narcotics until the Kennedy administration and eventually retired in 1962. He died of heart failure, in Altoona, Pennsylvania in 1975 at the age of 83. 

Under President Nixon's reign, cannabis became a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. Under the Act, cannabis is classified to have no medical benefit, "a high potential for abuse", and more dangerous than cocaine and methamphetamine. It remains a Schedule I drug to this day.

Throughout the 70s and 80s, a resurgence of anti-drug campaigning took place. President Nixon labelled drug abuse as "public enemy number one", President Reagan officially declared the 'war on drugs', and Nancy Reagan began the 'Just Say No' campaign, resurfacing the affiliation between drugs and race.

The next two decades saw a 12-fold increase in drug offender charges. 

So there you have it, it has taken almost 90 years for the world to recover from Anslinger's initial 'war on drugs'. However, there is still apprehension amongst political parties

Not everyone accepts cannabis, however, times are changing. Presidential candidate, Joe Biden is seeking to decriminalise cannabis amidst his campaign against the Trump administration in 2020. Meanwhile, cannabis is now an 'essential' industry as a result of the current COVID-19 pandemic, and its acceptance rate is higher than ever. 

The global cannabis industry is growing steadily, and its R&D is finding new ways in which we can utilise the plant for medicinal and wellness purposes. 

We can only imagine what Anslinger would say about all of this.

Sorry, Harry. You may have won the battle back in the day, but you certainly didn't win the war. 

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Taylor Ridewood
Taylor Ridewood

Taylor is a Sydney-based writer with a background in psychology and professional writing. She has a keen interest in the benefits of medicinal cannabis and enjoys researching the multi-faceted effects of cannabis on the body and mind.

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