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  • Jackson Tarricone

Harry J. Anslinger and the Origins of the War on Drugs

This article is part of a two- part series (1/2).

It is no secret that America’s drug legislation has disproportionately impacted people of color. Today, the “War on Drugs,” a term first coined by President Richard Nixon in 1972 to signify the country’s militant approach to thwarting the use of narcotics via the criminal justice system, costs more than $40 billion annually. In 2016, more than 600,000 people were arrested for possession of marijuana. Black and Latino people accounted for 46.9% of all drug law violations in the United States even though they represent just 31.5% of the U.S. population. On top of all that, The U.S has the highest incarceration rate in the world with 737 out of every 100,000 people being behind bars. Currently, almost 2.3 million people are imprisoned in the U.S., which makes up just under a quarter of the global incarcerated population.

These shocking stats evoke many questions: how did we get here? Perhaps more importantly, why? Although mass incarceration, specifically incarceration pertaining to drugs, remains a systemic issue today, the War on Drugs can be traced back to one person: Harry Jacob Anslinger.

Anslinger’s career kicked off during the Prohibition era when he was stationed in the Bahamas, where smugglers known as Rum Runners were illegally bringing liquor to the United States. He worked with the British Government to instill greater enforcement of Prohibition legislation and push for additional anti-smuggling treaties in other territories such as Nova Scotia and Cuba.

Anslinger’s impressive work during the Prohibition era got him noticed by the Department of the Treasury which promoted him to Assistant Commissioner of Prohibition Department in 1929. In this position he also oversaw the Federal Narcotics Control Board, which served as the main springboard for his career in post-Prohibition America: maintaining his ruthless and relentless approach to drug legislation.

Before the end of the Prohibition, Anslinger’s work as Director of the Federal Narcotics Control Board mostly dealt with combating heroin, morphine, and other narcotics both at home and abroad. In 1931, Anslinger was a delegate to the Geneva Convention where they signed the Geneva Limitation Convention of 1931. This put limits on the production and distribution of morphine, heroin, and cocaine for all countries in the League of Nations. It also made drug control organizations mandatory in participating countries. Additionally, serious cases of horse-doping emerged in the early 1930’s which involved trainers giving heroin, cocaine, caffeine, and other stimulants to their horses before races. Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) swiftly dealt with this, arresting the trainers responsible for animal cruelty. This greatly elevated his personal reputation as well as that of the FBN in the public’s eye.

The ratification of the 21st Amendment in 1933 repealed the 18th Amendment and formally ended Prohibition. This resulted in much uncertainty for Anslinger, who had based the entirety of his career on thwarting illegal alcohol consumption and smuggling both domestically and abroad. During the Prohibition, Anslinger was indifferent at best in regards to marijuana; he did not want to allocate his already limited resources to yet another drug law when he viewed other narcotics such as heroin and cocaine as far more dangerous. In need of a new career path, however, Anslinger had a change of heart.

To garner support from the public and politicians, Anslinger resorted to fear tactics, misinformation, and appeals to xenophobic and racist sentiments. In 1933, Twenty-one year old Italian-American Victor Licata brutally murdered his family with an axe inside their home in Tampa, Florida. Shortly thereafter, Licata was diagnosed with “dementia praecox,” which is now referred to as schizophrenia. This was the most reasonable cause of his actions, as the Tampa police found him curled up in his bathroom, claiming that his family was trying to tear his limbs off and replace them with wooden ones.

Yet, four years later, Anslinger chose to fixate on another detail; Licata had been smoking “marijuana cigarettes” for six months prior to murdering his family. Anslinger enlisted 30 doctors to determine whether this was the cause of the murder or not. Only one of these doctors claimed that there was a connection between the murder and marijuana use. Naturally, Anslinger peddled the findings of this lone doctor in his article entitled “Marijuana - Assassin of Youth,” which appeared in a 1937 issue of American Magazine, as well as his testimony before Congress before the passing of the Marijuana Act of 1937.

Anslinger distorted the nature of the findings of the Licata case, writing very matter-of-factly that if you “smoke a joint” then “you’re likely to kill your brother.” In addition, Anslinger described marijuana as incredibly volatile and frightening in his testimony before Congress in 1937: “Some people [under the influence of marijuana] 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.”

Anslinger depicted marijuana as being highly dangerous both on an individual and societal level on the basis of one dissenting opinion. Anslinger also failed to acknowledge Licata’s diagnosis as well as his family’s history of mental illness in the article, stating that Licata was “ordinarily a sane, rather quiet young man” before smoking marijuana. This is blatant misinformation designed to create hysteria and fear around marijuana.

Another way that Anslinger demonized the so-called “assassin of youth” was by referring to it as marijuana. Before the 1900’s, the drug was identified by the name of the plant from which its leaves grow: cannabis. From the 1900’s onward, the drug became known as marijuana to further anti-Mexican sentiments. In fact, one of the earliest appearances of the word came during 1905 in the Los Angeles Times in an article entitled "Delirium or death: terrible effects produced by certain plants and weeds grown in Mexico."

Anslinger made his xenophobic beliefs clear on multiple occasions when speaking of the dangers of marijuana in America. On one such occasion, Anslinger was quoted as saying that "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." Anslinger was directly targeting these groups by plainly connecting marijuana use with various people of color and their “Satanic” cultures. In regards to white women, however, Anslinger said that the chief concern was that the drug makes them associate with these groups. The thinly veiled racist rhetoric is precisely the problem with the United States’ approach to marijuana and other narcotics; their work is informed not by a concern for the public health, but rather by discrimination.

Anslinger’s work with the FBN culminated in the passing of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 following his testimony before Congress. By placing a ridiculous amount of regulations, fines, and imprisonment risk on anybody involved in the selling, prescribing, and consumption of cannabis, the law effectively criminalized the drug and paved the way for the mass incarceration of marijuana related offenders that would follow under President Richard Nixon.


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