The story of marijuana prohibition so far: Racism lies at the heart of all marijuana prohibition. The man most responsible for making marijuana illegal, former prohibition cop Harry Anslinger, assumed office as America’s first Commissioner of Narcotics in 1930. At the time, he oversaw a patchwork of state-by-state regulations, a small staff, a minimal budget, and an equally minimal mandate.
In the popular mythology of events, Harry Anslinger was already plotting how to get his hooks into “marihuana” even as he strolled into his office on his first day as the nation’s first ever Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) on July 1, 1930. The truth was, Anslinger’s brand-spanking-new agency — it was officially created on the same day Anslinger started working at it — began its life with some serious limitations. The bureau’s mandate gave it the authority to investigate and detect the presence of illicit narcotics and narcotics traffic.
Marijuana wasn’t part of its mandate. It doesn’t seem to have been Anslinger’s mandate, either. There’s nothing — not even in Anslinger’s own writing — that says it was part of his thinking at the time he started at the FBN.
It would be part of his thinking soon enough.
But, as he settled in to his desk chair, in his fifth floor Washington, D.C. office at the corner of 14th and K Streets, Anslinger’s concerns focused on more practical issues. His mission was mostly interdiction — the prevention of smuggling. But the money and manpower the agency had been allotted would make accomplishing that mission virtually impossible. Anslinger’s meager force of fewer than 250 agents was charged with guarding 4,000 miles of border and 20,000 miles of coastline. That meant each agent was, theoretically, responsible for guarding 100 miles of coastline or border all by himself. Remember, in 1930 the automobile was still relatively new. Phones weren’t cellular. They stayed in one place and couldn’t send messages or take pictures.
Anslinger has a biographer — a respected academic and historian, John C. McWilliams. In “The Protectors,” McWilliams’ straightforward, even-handed account of America’s first drug czar, he described how Anslinger immediately got to work turning his underfunded and undermanned agency into a well-funded, well-staffed personal fiefdom that he ran successfully for three decades. Anslinger “… cultivated and sustained solid political ties with key members of both parties and gained the support of dozens of interest groups and lobbies…, ” McWilliams wrote.
From day one, Anslinger got to work not just interdicting narcotics, but also working the room. As his biographer put it, “In a short period, Anslinger developed a keen understanding of Washington politics and the importance of establishing influential connections.” These would serve him well in the years ahead; they were instrumental in Anslinger eventually seeing his prize — the Marijuana Tax Act — made into law in 1937.
Anslinger’s considerable abilities as a bureaucrat were evident early in his life and career. He was ambitious, smart and detail-oriented. He quit school while in the eighth grade to join his father working for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Anslinger completed his course requirements as a part-time student and even enrolled at the Altoona Business College and later Pennsylvania State College, where he received a two-year associate degree in engineering and business management.
While working in the intelligence department for “The Pennsy” as it was known, , Anslinger discovered he had a knack for detective work. In his book, “Reefer Madness: A History of Marijuana,” Larry Sloman describes how young Anslinger sniffed out an attempt to defraud the railroad. He found evidence that proved a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the railroad was fraudulent. Saving his employer from the $50,000 settlement it was about to make established Anslinger’s reputation.
When World War I began, Anslinger enlisted. Again, ambition and initiative served him. He turned a stateside commission as assistant to the chief of inspection of equipment into a position with the diplomatic corps in the State Department as an attaché in the American Legation in The Hague, Netherlands. McWilliams tells the story of how Secretary of State Robert Lansing sent Anslinger on a top-secret mission to “establish personal communications with the Kaiser.” Having grown up in a German-speaking home, Anslinger was fluent in German and taught himself Dutch while working in The Hague. On the one hand, Anslinger was at the right time and place with the right skill set. On the other hand, Anslinger made a lot of his own luck.
Remaining with the State Department after World War I, Anslinger was sent to Hamburg, Germany. According to McWilliams, it was in Hamburg that Anslinger first saw the international trade in narcotics as a problem. He wasn’t a prohibitionist toward them, however. In his book “The Traffic in Narcotics,” Anslinger writes about the benefits of narcotics. “The use of opium in medicine and surgery,” he wrote, “is indispensable.”
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., Prohibition became law on October 1919. The Volstead Act passed, finalizing the prohibition of alcohol. Something else was happening, far out of view: a ripple effect of another piece of sweeping legislation. Five years before, in 1914, Congress had passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, which regulated and taxed the production, importation, and distribution of opiates and coca products. The law also criminalized opiates. Even prescribing them became difficult.
Prior to 1920, heroin addicts could receive treatment under trained supervision in legally sanctioned clinics. When the Harrison Act closed down the clinics, according to McWilliams, “The addicts were literally forced into the street where they resorted to illicit means to obtain illicit drugs.” Many turned to crime to support their now illicit habit. The prisons began to fill.
Returning to the U.S., Anslinger segued into a job as chief of the newly created division of foreign control in the State Department’s prohibition unit. Prohibition of alcohol agreed with Anslinger and, according to McWilliams, Anslinger agreed with it. As Anslinger settled into his new assignment, one of the Harrison Act’s unintended effects was boomeranging back at America.
Not only had the Harrison Act not solved America’s narcotics problem, it had made it significantly worse: America’s prisons were now filling, if not already filled, with drug addicts.
By 1928, America’s addiction problem was considered so severe that Republican U.S. Rep. Stephen G. Porter of Pennsylvania, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, introduced HR 12781, a bill intended to mitigate the burgeoning addiction problem by establishing two prison hospitals that Porter referred to as “farms”. McWilliams described these facilities as “clearinghouses” for addicts already in state or federal penitentiaries.
But Porter wanted the job of overseeing the farms taken off the prohibition unit’s plate. He saw an independent Bureau of Narcotics as the logical next step.
As a result, the creation of the Bureau of Narcotics was inspired, in large part, as a necessary response to the glaring failures of the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914.
McWilliams didn’t write whether Anslinger actively sought the appointment as the bureau’s first commissioner, but he had lots of friends soliciting on his behalf. More than a dozen applicants competed with Anslinger.
The day before the U.S. Senate was scheduled to vote on who would be appointed commissioner, as McWilliams tells the story, Anslinger oversaw a narcotics raid that seized $1 million dollars worth of product. If Anslinger’s connections hadn’t sealed the deal, his boss, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon — who also was his father-in-law — the raid did.
Anslinger became the bureau’s first commissioner.
Tempting as it is to dismiss Anslinger as a bland, soulless, racist bureaucrat, the simple fact is, Anslinger succeeded almost entirely at getting what he wanted. It took Anslinger 10 years to go from a lowly clerk to commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. That career path suggests that the person on it shouldn’t be taken for granted. As Anslinger would consistently demonstrate, those who bet against him usually lost.
Next installment: Harry Anslinger, Part II — Marijuana on the radar.