The Man Who Started the War on Drugs - OZY | A Modern Media Company
It all began in 1937, in the pages of ... Readers Digest?
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WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because the seeds of mass incarceration were sown early.

By Seth Ferranti

  • Harry Anslinger, who headed the precursor of the Drug Enforcement Administration, kicked off the War on Drugs in the 1930s with a propaganda campaign against marijuana.
  • Anslinger helped enforce alcohol prohibition and needed a new target.
  • Ripple effects from his racist approach can be felt today.

President Richard Nixon first declared war on drugs in 1971, but Tricky Dick was just following in the footsteps of someone else, who decades earlier set the tone when it came to drug prohibition in the United States. The vilification of marijuana truly began in 1937 when the nation’s first drug czar, Harry Anslinger, wrote “Marijuana — Assassin of Youth,” an article in The American Magazine, later reprinted in Reader’s Digest, that ascribed murderous effects to marijuana and hashish.

He wrote of a young girl’s suicide in Chicago, blaming marijuana use for her fatal leap from a window. He told gory stories: Two boys high on marijuana had killed a cop, while another had chopped up his whole family with an ax. Anslinger’s fever dream pointed to two culprits: The devil weed itself, and the Black jazz musicians he was sure were responsible for its widespread use.

His language seems farfetched in an era when marijuana is mostly legal. Consider this passage: “Marijuana is the unknown quantity among narcotics. No one knows when he smokes it, whether he will become philosopher, a joyous reveler, a mad insensate or a murderer.” Anslinger almost single-handedly turned what at the time was a non-issue into the reason why so many Americans are incarcerated or have lost their jobs today.

Law for [Anslinger] represented the enforcement of protection for white enclaves and the ordering, you might say control, of communities of color through judicial and carceral mechanisms.

Alexandra Chasin, author of Assassin of Youth: A Kaleidoscopic History of Harry J. Anslinger’s War on Drugs

As America moved toward repealing prohibition in 1933, the agents who had enforced the alcohol ban didn’t know where they’d end up. “Harry worked for the Treasury,” says Niko Vorobyov, author of Dopeworld: Adventures in Drug Lands. “When he saw the dry law wasn’t going to last, he realized he’d be out of a job or at very least his department would be defunded.” The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the predecessor of the Drug Enforcement Administration, was formed in 1930, before prohibition was even over, and President Herbert Hoover appointed Anslinger to run it.

Harry J. Anslinger Speaking at Microphone

Testifying on Capitol Hill in 1955, Anslinger told senators that there were about 60,000 narcotics addicts in the nation, or one in every 3,000 people.

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“Anslinger was an original law-and-order guy,” says Alexandra Chasin, author of Assassin of Youth: A Kaleidoscopic History of Harry J. Anslinger’s War on Drugs. “Law for [him] represented the enforcement of protection for white enclaves and the ordering, you might say control, of communities of color through judicial and carceral mechanisms.” Anslinger also nursed a lifelong suspicion of Sicilians that spurred him to identify a crime syndicate, the Mafia, even before then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. 

“The bootlegging era’s poster boy was Al Capone. The narcotics problem needed specific enemies and Anslinger labeled Lucky Luciano the face of America’s illicit drug problem,” says Christian Cipollini, author of Lucky Luciano: Mysterious Tales of a Gangland Legend. But after six years of chasing the infamous mafiaso, America’s top drug cop turned his attention to Mary Jane. 

“Anslinger was behind a propaganda campaign that portrayed marijuana as this madness-inducing drug on par with crystal meth.” Vorobyov says. “He lied or deliberately misrepresented evidence, and he ignored experts who called him out on it.”

His aggressive approach carried a racist bent that came to define the drug war: he targeted jazz music in particular. Musicians “brought the habit northward [from Mexico] with the surge of ‘hot’ music demanding players of exceptional ability, especially in improvisation,” Anslinger wrote in “Marijuana — Assassin of Youth.” One of his most famous targets was the Black jazz singer Billie Holiday, who had a tough life and got addicted to alcohol and heroin. At Anslinger’s urging to make a high-profile bust, his agents hounded her to the very end as she lay dying in withdrawal in 1959.

Anslinger’s campaign against marijuana — rebranded from “cannabis” to its Spanish name, to give it a foreign tinge — helped result in the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which allowed the government to start cracking down on dealers as tax cheats and resulting in the criminalization of the drug overall.

Anslinger stayed on the job until he retired at age 70 in 1962, having been drug czar under five presidents. The War on Drugs was under way if not declared, as incarceration rates among nonwhites were rising — though not yet skyrocketing as they would later in the century.

“We’ve gone so far beyond those early days,” says Vorobyov, “even [the architects of the drug war] might be shocked.”

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