“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.”
Because the seeds of mass incarceration were sown early.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Jacob Anslinger was born 20 May 1892 in Altoona, Pennsylvania. He attended Pennsylvania State College, 1913-1915, and received his LL. B. from American University in 1930. Anslinger served in the U.S. Government, 1918-1963, under nine presidents; he held consular posts in The Netherlands, Germany, Venezuela, and the Bahamas, 1918-1926; Treasury Department, chief of Division of Foreign Control, 1926-1929, assistant commissioner of prohibition, 1929-1930, and commissioner, Bureau of Narcotics, 1930-1963. He was the U.S. representative at League of Nations conferences on narcotics, and served on the United Nations Narcotic Drugs Commission. Anslinger served for many years as the American government’s chief law enforcement officer in the fight against illegal drugs. Anslinger was the commissioner of the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Narcotics from its inception in 1930 until his retirement in 1963. He also authored several books in which he presented the story of police efforts to curb the import and use of dangerous drugs. Materials written or collected by Anslinger on narcotic drug use include personal and professional correspondence, addresses, reports, typescripts, articles, clippings, pamphlets, journals, and photos. The papers include material on Anslinger’s work with the League of Nations and United Nations, and the U.S. Consular Service. There are also typescript and galley proofs of his book, The Murderers, (1961) and photocopies of writings on narcotics by other authors.
Processed by Special Collections staff.
Existence and Location of Copies
Microfilm reproductions from this collection are available at the Special Collections Library. It may be possible to borrow them through interlibrary loan. Contact the Research Services Department at [email protected] for more information.