It may seem that cannabis has been embroiled in scandal and unjustly demonised since the Nixon administration initiated the slanderous ‘war on drugs’, but its origins can actually be traced further back to one man: Harry Jacob Anslinger.
Anslinger was a miserly man who really didn’t like having fun; he hated Jazz, drugs, and alcohol and was a career prohibitionist.
His career kicked off when he was stationed in the Bahamas during the alcohol prohibition era, where smugglers known as Rum Runners were illegally bringing liquor to the United States. The bootleggers were mainly West Indian and Central American, and Anslinger believed they were filled with “loathsome and contagious diseases” that would spread to anyone who touched or consumed the booze.
Anslinger’s hardline approach to prohibition soon led to a promotion that landed him the title of Assistant Commissioner of the Prohibition Department in 1929. In this role, he oversaw the Federal Narcotics Control Board, which served as the main springboard for his career. His ruthless and relentless approach to alcohol prohibition saw him well equipped to wage an unholy war against drugs.
But Harry had a little problem; In 1930, he was newly appointed as the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), but this department was on the brink of collapse. The team of federal agents had spent 14 years waging war against alcohol, and in the end, they lost.
Realising his newly crowned title was at risk, in a move of self-preservation, Anslinger concocted a new focus for the department – total eradication of all drugs, everywhere.
He implemented rigorous drug laws and unreasonably long prison sentences during this time. Due to Anslinger’s hard stance on drugs, millions of lives were destroyed and ultimately ended.
Anslinger’s crusade wasn’t so much a war on drugs as it was a war on counter-culture, people of colour, and weirdly enough, Jazz music. Anslinger was a staunch xenophobe, and his racist views strongly influenced his work. But he couldn’t have done it alone; he was supported by a cast of corrupt politicians who shared his prejudicial vision for 20th century America.
To garner further support of political allies and the general public, Anslinger latched onto several cases where people of colour had committed violent crimes purportedly while high, and he presented them to Congress. The case that seemed to seal the deal was that of Victor Licata, a young Italian man who violently hacked his family to death. Soon after his arrest, it was established that he was mentally ill and diagnosed with Schizophrenia.
However, this didn’t stop Anslinger and the press from scapegoating Licata, weaponising his mental illness to infer a link between recreational cannabis use and violent crime. This led to his crimes being used in anti-drug campaigns against marijuana throughout the 1930s.
Anslinger consulted 30 scientific experts to confirm his claim that marijuana was linked to violent crime. Of those 30 experts, 29 said there was no connection, so he marketed the message of the one dissenting doctor to anyone who would listen.
Anslinger’s fear-mongering narrative appeared to be working. The national press began running articles conflating marijuana use with violent crime. In another game of wordplay, the term cannabis was slowly swapped out for marihuana to further conjure anti-immigrant sentiment.
Anslinger’s efforts culminated in the introduction of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, making marijuana illegal.
Harry hated Jazz. According to Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream, “Jazz was the opposite of everything Harry Anslinger believed in. It is improvised, and relaxed, and free-form. It follows its own rhythm. Worst of all, it is a mongrel music made 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.”
Fast forward to 1939, the founding mother of Jazz, Billie Holiday, had been performing her haunting song “Strange Fruit”, which boldly depicted the lynching of black men in the racist states of Southern America.
Anslinger had heard whispers about the rising star. Given his undeniable hatred of Jazz, drugs and people of colour, he began to target Holiday due to her apparent heroin addiction and the fact that she continued to sing about oppression.
From that day on, Anslinger deployed his henchmen to hound the singer. She endured years of endless torment, and in her final days, as she was being transported to the hospital for a combination of drug and alcohol use, she said, “They are going to arrest me in this damn bed.”
Reportedly, Anslinger told the hospital to deny her life-saving medications and Holiday died not long after in that hospital bed. Her best friend Maely Dufty effectively blamed Anslinger’s campaign for her death.
Over the coming years, Anslinger would have a ruling hand in all U.S. drug legislation, including the Boggs Act of 1951, which required mandatory sentencing and various state laws further criminalising drug use.
Somehow, Anslinger was considered the preeminent expert on drugs in America.
“It’s hard to overstate Harry Anslinger’s influence on 20th century American culture. It’s harder still to grapple with his legacy as father of the drug war.” – Michael Weinreb ’94 Com
In 1971, Nixon officially declared the “war on drugs.” His aide and Watergate co-conspirator John Ehrlichman later revealed the reprehensible motives.
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people … We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”
Cannabis seems to be an innocent bystander, caught up in political warfare and used to fortify a racist, inhumane agenda that has lasted for nearly 100 years.