The Ecphorizer

Harry J. Anslinger
Ed Rehmus

Issue #62 (January 1987)

Harry Jacob Anslinger, the man who single-handedly set the tone for 20th-century American attitudes towards drugs, was born of German ancestry in Altoona, Pennsylvania, May 20, 1892. For 32 years (1930-1962) he was the first Commissioner of the US Bureau of Narcotics.

...marijuana could now be set up for the death penalty...

began his curious career in 1917, as a member of the Efficiency Board of the Ordnance Division, War Department, in Washington. From 1918-21 he was attached to the American Legation at the Hague. From 1921-23 he was vice-consul at Hamburg, Germany and consul at La Guaira, Venezuela, 1923-25.

In 1926 Anslinger began to show the direction his life was going to take when he became a delegate of the United States to "A Conference on the Suppression of Smuggling," in London, and to an "International Congress against Alcoholism," in Antwerp, 1928. From 1929 to 1930 he was Assistant Commissioner of Prohibition. It was out of this ultimate agency that the newly-founded "Bureau of Narcotics" developed and after which, as it became clear that Prohibition was on the way out, it patterned its style.

He was the author of three books: The Traffic in Narcotics, The Murders, and The Protectors. Years after Prohibition had been repealed, Anslinger was to admit in The Protectors: "Prohibition, by depriving Americans of their vices, only created the avenues through which organized crime gained its firm foothold."

In 1930, with his appointment as head of the Narcotics Bureau, Anslinger took an exaggerated view of drugs and society and he began a life-long war against dope. And, although heroin and the opiates were his chief targets, he soon developed a secondary and even more vicious hatred of marijuana. Undoubtedly what he found most objectionable about it was its effect on the psyche, the very thing which its defenders now cite as an important "social value."

From the beginning, Anslinger's rationale was that marijuana was a major source of crime — especially murder. Of 17 anti-marijuana articles printed between 1937 and 1939, five of them repeated an identical story concocted by Anslinger: "An entire family was murdered by a youthful (marijuana) addict in Florida. When the officers arrived at the home they found the youth staggering about in a human slaughterhouse. With an axe he had killed his father, mother, two brothers and a sister. He seemed to be in a daze... he had no recollection of having committed the multiple crime. The officers knew him ordinarily as a sane, rather quiet young man; now he was pitifully crazed. They sought the reason. The boy said he had been in the habit of smoking something which youthful friends called 'muggles,' a childish name for marijuana." In the Reader's Digest, February '38, an article by Anslinger entitled "Marijuana -- Assassin of Youth," stated: "There must be constant enforcement and constant education against this enemy, which has a record of murder and terror running thru the centuries."

In his book Traffic in Narcotics, 1940, Anslinger unbares his second reason for naming marijuana a "killer". A man shot two women to death, then committed suicide by slicing himself to death around the heart, abdomen and throat. The opinion of the doctor (unnamed) was that the only thing that could produce such a condition of unreason and imperviousness to shock was marijuana.

Of the La Guardia Report in 1944 Anslinger says: "There has been a climate of public opinion which has favored the spread of narcotic addiction. Contributing to this was a very unfortunate report released some years ago by the so-called La Guardia committee on marijuana. The Bureau immediately detected the superficiality and hollowness of its findings and denounced it."

It is ironic that southern farmers had long cultivated hemp for filters, without using it as a narcotic. This included even Washington and Jefferson in their day. But as a result of the increase in marijuana smoking in the 20s and 30s the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, under Angslinger's control, conducted a campaign against this useful crop that resulted in the "Marijuana Tax Act" of 1937 and marked the end of America's unsupervised cultivation of Indian hemp and its products. Although this tax was supposed merely to bring another source of revenue, its real purpose was to prohibit the use of cannabis as an intoxicant. Only incidentally, however, it also managed to circumscribe the legitimate industrial uses of the plant.

During the post-war years narcotics traffic reached a peak. In the United States, Commissioner Angslinger fought to persuade Italy, France and Middle Eastern countries to police this illegal business. Unsuccessful, he decided to create his own police system in Europe and attached American agents to our Embassies abroad. Eventually he managed to elicit the help of local agents. They finally succeeded in reducing the quality of heroin on the market and raising its price.

In 1956, Congress approved a law that permitted the death penalty in some cases involving sales of heroin to persons under 18. At the same time, stiffer sentences were voted all along the line for possession of any drug derived from opium and for marijuana, which is not an opiate. Anslinger was convinced that peddling diminishes whenever punishment is severe. Of the new provision for a death penalty, Anslinger said "I'd like to throw the switch myself on drug peddlers who sell their poison to minors." (US News & World Report July 20, 1956).

But whereas in the past Anslinger had always called drug addiction "murder on the installment plan," he now took a new line. He now began to promulgate the belief that marijuana was a stepping stone to the opiates. What this meant was that marijuana could now be set up for the death penalty as well. In 1937 he insisted that marijuana lay behind most crimes. In 1955 he said: "There have been many brutal crimes traced to marijuana, but I would not say that it is a controlling factor in the commission of crimes." Now the story was that it led to other, harder drugs.

In that same year Anslinger appeared before a senate subcommittee investigating traffic in illicit drugs. Senator Price Daniel questioned Anslinger as to whether there was any real danger that the use of marijuana leads many people eventually to the use of heroin. Angslinger hedgingly replied: "That is the great problem and our great concern about the use of marijuana, that eventually, if used over a long period, it does lead to heroin addiction."

In 1962 Anslinger resigned at the mandatory retirement age of 70. His enemies suggested that his old-fashioned attitude didn't fit him for duty on the New Frontier. His successor, however, Henry L Giordano, Anslinger's deputy since 1958, continued to follow Anslinger's line: "They start on marijuana, then graduate to heroin." This was in 1967. His successor, Director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs J. E. Ingersoll, continued with the same argument: "And it is a matter of record that the explosion in marijuana use has been accompanied by a sharp upturn in heroin use." Real studies, however, indicate just the opposite. Grinspoon, in his book Marijuana Reconsidered, calls this the "fallacy of the reversed apparent equation." The facts are that marijuana users do not graduate to heroin, that heroin users seldom have a prior interest in marijuana.

In Playboy Magazine, February 1970 (p 72), Anslinger was asked about the connection between drugs and sex. "There isn't any question about marijuana being a sexual stimulant. It has been used throughout the ages for that: in Egypt for instance. From what we have seen, it is an aphrodisiac, and I believe that the use in colleges today has sexual connotations. A classical example of amatory activities is contained in the article 'Hashish Poisoning in England,' from the London Police Journal of July 1934. In this remarkable case, a young man and his girlfriend planted marijuana seeds in their backyard and when the stalks matured, they crushed the flowering tops and smoked one cigarette and then engaged in such erotic activities that the neighbors called the police and they were taken to jail."

Throughout his career Anslinger spurned the idea that there is hope for the recidivist — the user who lapses after a cure — and felt that access to rehabilitation, instead of imprisonment, only weakens an addict's will. He believed in the cold turkey withdrawal system for drug addicts because he felt that to be an effective punishment and deterrent. In his book The Protectors, Anslinger makes mention of Synanon but it is difficult to tell his true feelings. He says "We in the Bureau admire them and wish some of the energy used in the attacks against us could be used in helping them." But then he makes a curious juxtaposition "The Synanon Foundation should not be confused with the clinic plans of 1919, which some groups have conveniently forgotten."

One might expect that some of Anslinger's extreme narrowness would have moderated after his retirement, but the fact is he remained a formidable opponent to the liberalization of marijuana laws until his death. Curiously, he had little to say about today's drug of choice, cocaine, probably because it was not so readily obtainable in his day as now.

Anslinger received a number of awards, medals, honorary degrees and titles during his long career. Among these were the Remington Medal, Proctor Gold Medal Awards, a Presidential Citation, Honorary Member of the Terre Haute Academy of Medicine, Distinguished Alumnus Award Pennsylvania State University, and so on. 

ED REHMUS weighs in this month with an incisive little account of Harry Anslinger, surely one of the more creative of public servants. Prohibition was never repealed — it just found a new constituency.

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