Anslinger, Harry Jacob, and U.S. Drug Policy

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For almost a third of a century, from 1930 until 1962, one man, Harry Jacob Anslinger (1892-1975), had the dominant role in shaping and enforcing U.S. policy about the use of drugsother than alcohol and tobacco. Understanding his life and work is, therefore, a necessity for understanding the evolution of federal drug policies through the end of the twentieth century. Anslinger was Commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962, chief U.S. delegate to international drug agencies until 1970, and a leading proponent of repressive antidrug measures in the United Statesand worldwide.

Anslinger was born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, May 20, 1892, the eighth of nine children in a Swiss immigrant family. At the age of twelve, he was sent by a neighbor to pick up a package of morphine from the drugstore. Anslinger said that he never forgot the screams of agony shrieked by the neighbor's wife because of her withdrawal symptoms, or how quickly she felt good upon getting a dose, or how easy it was for a twelve-year-old boy to buy morphine. Until the Harrison Act was passed in 1914about a decade after this incident which haunted Anslinger for the rest of his lifethere was simply no federal law against selling or using narcotics. They were inexpensive. Most persons started taking them as perfectly legal painkillers. A few of these persons became addicted, often without even realizing it. They merely used the narcotic so steadily that they didn't experience withdrawal. These addicts were typically white, lived in the countryside, continued to function satisfactorily at work or at home, could afford the cheap drugs they used, and caused no trouble to anyone else.

At the age of fourteen, Anslinger started working for the Pennsylvania Railroad while taking high school courses in his free hours. Without a high school diploma, he managed in 1913 to enter a Pennsylvania State College two-year program in engineering and business management, while continuing to work part-time for the railroad and also playing the piano for silent movies. By 1915, he was a railroad detective, and one summer day he had to assist an Italian railroad worker who had been beaten and left unconscious near the tracks by an organized-crime gangster.

In 1917, he volunteered to help the American effort in World War I and worked for the U.S. Army as assistant to the Chief of Inspection of Equipment. In 1918, Anslinger entered the U.S. diplomatic service. His First post was Holland, where he was assigned as liaison to deposed Kaiser Wilhelm's entourage; Wilhelm II was born in 1859, became Emperor (Kaiser, that is Caesar) of Germany and King of Prussia in 1888 upon the death of his father, Frederick III, reigned as emperor and king until 1918 when he fled to asylum in Holland, where he lived a comfortable life as a country gentleman until his death in 1940. Anslinger's assignment in Holland lasted three years, and then in the summer of 1921, he was sent to Hamburg, Germany. In 1923 he was reassigned from Germany to Venezuela for a frustrating three-year stint as U.S. vice-consul in La Guaira, the port for the capital city of Caracas (McWilliams, 1990).


In 1920, the Prohibition Amendment had made the importing, manufacture, or sale of alcoholic beverages illegal throughout the United States and its possessions (a slight amount was permitted for sacramental and medicinal purposes). Of course, illegal liquor became an instant success. In 1926, Anslinger became U.S. consul in Nassau in the British Bahamas, which were then a principal location from which illegal alcohol was smuggled into the United States. Consul Anslinger was quickly recognized for his effective work in persuading the British authorities to cooperate in curbing the flow of intoxicating beverages. The Volstead Act (1919) and the Harrison Act (1914), aimed respectively at enforcing Prohibition and controlling the distribution of narcotic drugs, were both tax measures, and hence came within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Treasury Department. Treasury soon borrowed Anslinger from the Department of State to serve in its Prohibition Bureau, which then enforced both acts. On July 1, 1930, three years before Prohibition ended, the drug-regulation functions were shifted to a new Bureau of Narcotics; Anslinger was named acting commissioner after other candidates were disqualified by scandal. President Herbert C. Hoover made Anslinger's appointment permanent on September 23, 1930.


Drug addiction, particularly genuine addiction to the Opiates, had already been demonized when Anslinger came on the scene: Addicts had been labeled dope fiends in the public mind, and the illicit traffic had been attributed first to sinister German agents during World War I, then to terrifying Chinese tongs (secret societies). Clinics, set up to relieve the plight of addicts who had been cut off from their supplies by providing them with maintenance doses of Heroin, were curbed by a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings, interpreted by the Treasury Department to prohibit heroin maintenance as a form of medical treatment. The clinics were closed, and by 1925 doctors had stopped prescribing to addicts. A black market had begun to flourish parallel to that in alcohol.

Anslinger favored an extremely punitive approach from the outset. He cultivated members of Congress and other politicians, providing all who served his interests with material to portray themselves as fierce drug-fighters. He relentlessly opposed "education" about the realities of drug useon the ground that it would encourage "youthful experimenters." His Bureau sounded one alarm after another: For example, drugs caused users to commit violent crimes (it was solemnly claimed, for a while, that dangerous criminals took drugs to sharpen their vicious courage in committing crimes) and that addicts induced others to become addicted (each addict made seven others in his career), so they were "infectious" in the community.

Sometimes the Bureau of Narcotics warned that an entire generation of American youth, including young children, was imperiled; then, suddenly, drugs would be revealed as responsible for a wave of juvenile delinquency and for the menace of "young hoodlums." The Bureau announced its enforcement success in terms of the total number of years of sentences imposed on drug offenders annually ("3,248 years, 10 months, 18 days" for 1933); Seizures of drugs were announced at Street value, which grossly inflated their price. Because formal systems to measure levels of drug abuse were lacking, drug statistics could be and were manipulatedskyrocketing when Anslinger wanted support or appropriations, plummeting when he wanted credit and praise. Indeed, even before Anslinger became commissioner of narcotics in 1930, enforcement activities had resulted in an increase in federal prisoners and had led Congress to establish two U.S. Public Health Service Hospitals (one in Kentucky, one in Texas) to treat addicted inmates. They were authorized in January 1919, but it was 1935 before the first of the two actually opened. However, the major thrust of U.S. policy was control of supply and punishment of users.


During his tenure as commissioner, Anslinger dominated the enactment of U.S. narcotics laws. In the mid-1930s, to puff the menace his Bureau was combating, he turned his attention to Marijuana (Cannabis sativa [hemp]), used at the time by a few Spanish Americans, Caribbean Blacks, and in such limited circles as jazz musicians. A number of responsible studies of the effects of marijuana (such as one by the Hemp Commission in British India in 1895) and its more potent form, hashish, had pronounced it relatively harmlessbut that gave Anslinger and a few other sensationalists of the day no pause. Shocking accounts of heinous crimes induced by marijuana began emanating from the Bureau; the theory that pot smoking was a dangerous "gateway" to other addictions gained credence; and a Bureau-sponsored film, Reefer Madness, was produced to popularize Anslinger's visions of the hazards of drug use. Viewed from the end of the twentieth century, this film convulses audiences as classic kitsch.

Anslinger orchestrated the passage of a bill in Congress to place marijuana in the same highly restricted categories as Heroin and Cocaine. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the bill on August 2, 1937. The drug soon came to account for more enforcement activity than any other. Honest research on its toxic properties was stifled because the Bureau would not license its use by researchers outside of government. Although its therapeutic value in alleviating nausea due to chemotherapy for cancer patients or for treating glaucoma is generally recognized, it remains in the most strictly prohibited "dangerous drug" classification in the year 2000.


In the late 1940s, Anslinger launched an attack on judges, claiming that the drug problem was caused by too-lenient sentences imposed on drug offenders. This was picked up by Anslinger disciples in Congress and resulted in legislationthe Boggs Act, signed by President Truman on November 2, 1951, and amended by the Narcotics Control Act, signed by President Eisenhower on July 18, 1956. These acts introduced severe mandatory minimum punishments following conviction, at least two, five, and ten years in prison for repeated convictions, without probation or parole, and with a mandatory life sentenceor death, at a jury's discretionfor sale of heroin by an adult to a minor.


The Narcotics Bureau had similarly pressured state legislatures to enact extreme drug laws, promulgating a Uniform Narcotic Drug Act through the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws in 1932, inducing the passage of tough marijuana measures after 1937, and promoting "Little Boggs Acts" in the late 1950s. Some of the latter laws contained penalties even more severe than the federal law, and it became common practice for Anslinger's men and local prosecutors to shuffle drug offenders into either state or federal courts, depending on where they would receive the harsher sentences.

Federal lawmakers were somewhat inhibited, in Anslinger's day, by the fact that federal drug laws were based solely on Congress's power to tax. States could enact penalties based on their general powers to punish crime, and some even prescribed punishment for the mere status of being an addictuntil the Supreme Court ruled that practice out in Robinson v. California (1963). Little attention was paid to "treatment" or "rehabilitation"; addicts should either give up their wicked habits, and their spreading of the vice to others, or they should be isolated from society by "quarantine" somewhere. Toward the end of Anslinger's tenure, attention turned to "civil commitment," which sometimes in effect made the quarantine a life-sentence, at least when lawmakers provided scanty resources for rehabilitating those thus committed.


By 1930, when Anslinger had become commissioner, the patterns of international controls had also been largely set, with the United States urging stringent repression and most of the rest of the world remaining indifferent or resistant. (The basic Hague Convention of 1912 would never have been ratified by more than a few nations had not the United States insisted upon its inclusion in the Paris peace treaties, which created the League of Nations in 1921.) Although the United States never joined the League of Nations, U.S. representatives were always given a voice in drug mattersand Anslinger dominated international deliberations, leading the U.S. delegations first to the drug-control agencies of the League of Nations and then to those of the United Nations (U.N.), even after his resignation as U.S. commissioner.

Anslinger's annual Bureau reports to the U.S. Treasury were also submitted as his official annual reports to the League Opium Advisory Committee and its successor, the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs. He could thus push his views in the United States as recommendations endorsed by the international bodies and, simultaneously, present them to the latter as official statements of U.S. positions.

Anslinger participated in the drafting of the 1931 Narcotics Limitation Convention, which imposed controls on the production of drugs for legitimate medical uses; he pressed for the 1936 Convention for Suppression of Illicit Traffic, which sought to persuade other nations to impose criminal sanctions on domestic distribution and consumption. When World War II isolated Geneva and ended most of the functions of the League of Nations based there, he arranged for moving the international drug agencies to New York City, where they continued to operate. After the war, he was the leading proponent of a Single Convention, finally approved in 1961, after ten years of drafting. It incorporated much of the U.S. law-enforcement orientation, including obligations upon members to control crops and production, to standardize identification and packaging, and to impose severe criminal penalties on drug offenders.

Although the Single Convention was widely ratified, many signatories ignored its requirements. Lacking enforcement sanctions, it had small effect. Some of Anslinger's more radical proposals, such as including the promotion of opium addiction in the definition of genocide, which he charged to enemies like the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union, won no international support, but they played well at home.


It is often asserted that Anslinger was forced out of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics by the Kennedy administration. Actually, he offered his resignation on his seventieth birthday, May 20, 1962, but was asked by the Kennedy administration to remain as acting commissioner until a successor could be found. He did so, and was pleased when his closest aide, Deputy Commissioner Henry L. Giordano, was appointed by President Kennedy as the new commissioner and promised that he would make no changes in policies established by Anslinger. Kennedy also permitted Anslinger to remain as U.S. representative to the United Nations, a post he continued to hold until 1970. Anslinger, for his part, spoke highly of the fact that Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the president's younger brother, went after top figures in the Mafia, not merely jailing addicts. After the Kennedy assassination in 1963, President Johnson (president from 1963 to 1969) moved much of the federal drug-control apparatus from Treasury to the Department of Justice.

Yet Anslinger's perspective seems to live on. Presidents Nixon (1969-1974), Reagan (1981-1989), and George Bush (1989-1993) intensified the drug war, justifying such efforts with arguments initially developed by Anslinger. Congress, too, continues to be influenced by Anslinger's views. Congressional rhetoric and penal statutes are more extreme in the year 2000 than those of the Boggs era. Marijuana is still lumped with heroin and cocaine, and new alarmsthe discovery of a Crack-baby epidemic and the menace of "ice"are periodically trumpeted. Anslinger created and set a pattern of aggressive drug suppressioncontrary to the initial purposes of the Harrison Actand kept drug prohibition alive when the alcohol ban, Prohibition, which had truly been intended, was repealed in 1933. Anslinger may indeed have been, as critical Congressman John M. Coffee labeled him in 1938, "far and away the costliest man in the world."

Anslinger has often been portrayed as a racist who promoted and enforced extremely severe laws against marijuana once he realized that it was favored by blacks (as Hashish, its use had been legal in Muslim Africa, and the Spanish permitted its importation to the Americas along with the slaves). It is a fact that Anslinger prevented the showing in the United States of a Canadian film Drug Addict on grounds that it would encourage youthful experimentation with drugs. Keys & Galliher (2000) claim: "The historical record paints a different picture of Anslinger's reasoning and demonstrates what was really unacceptable to Anslinger and the FBN [Federal Bureau of Narcotics]. Major themes of the film, addicts are recruited from all races and classes. To emphasize this the film shows affluent whites injecting drugs." If Anslinger indeed objected to the film for showing affluent white addicts, one would logically suspect that he would object to the following passage for the same reason: "Many of the big dealers in the business of narcotic agony move in the most elite circles in both Europe and America. One notorious international trafficker, responsible for the addiction of millions, with his edge of accent and his impeccable grooming, melted easily into the Park Avenue cocktail hour." But Anslinger did not object to this description of an affluent Parisian drug lord. Indeed, he is its author (Anslinger, 1961).

In hindsight, it is easy to say that in 1930 America would have benefited from a three-pronged approach to narcotics: punishment for organized crime when it imported drugs, medical treatment for addicts, and honest education about the facts of drug use. But we must remember that Anslinger was basically a high school dropout. He never received a high school diploma or a degree from a four-year undergraduate college. He saw the world in one-dimensional black-and-white terms. He had seen the pain that addiction caused his neighbor's wife. He had seen the evil of organized crime. He had seen decisive American military force in World War I destroy the evil empires, as they were perceived, of Germany and Austria-Hungary. He had seen the Allies fight crime and exact severe punishment. (He could not have foreseen in 1930 that the severity of this punishment was misguided and would lead to Hitler and World War II.) He wanted to fight the evil of drug addiction. The solution seemed simple. Make everything connected with drug usesale, use, importation, manufactureillegal; lock up everyone involved in any way with any drug for as long as possible, preferably for life. He seems never to have realized that greater emphasis on treatment and education would have made drugs less profitable to organized crime, that his extreme criminalization policies created a niche for international criminals to fill. The years 1930 through 1962 in which he headed the FBN were not normal years, but rather consisted of three great crises in a row: the Depression, World War II, and the beginning of the Cold Warall three of which encouraged greater activism on the part of the federal government. They were also the years in which blacks migrated from the rural South to the urban North, where they were often tempted to ease their culture shock with narcotics that were expensive (as they had not been for his neighbor's wife when Anslinger was twelve and morphine was legal), precisely because his Bureau's enforcement drove the drugs underground. Anslinger has yet to receive the benefit of a well-balanced biography. It is hoped that an objective setting of his life against his times may one day be completed, thanks in part to the thirteen boxes of his papers which he left to Pennsylvania State University (McWilliams, 1990).

(See also: Methadone Maintenance Programs ; Treatment, History of, in the United States ; U.S. Government Agencies )


Anslinger, Harry Jacob, and William F. Tompkins (1953). The traffic in narcotics. New York: Funk & Wagnalls; reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1980.

Anslinger, Harry Jacob, with Will Oursler (1961). The murderers: The story of the narcotics gangs. New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy.

Anslinger, Harry Jacob, and J. Dennis Gregory (1964). The protectors: The heroic story of the narcotics agents, citizens, and officials in their unending, unsung battles against organized crime in America and abroad. New York: Farrar, Straus.

Brecher, Edward M., et al. (1972). Licit and illicit drugs: The Consumers Union report on narcotics, stimulants, depressants, inhalants, hallucinogens, and marijuanaincluding caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. Boston: Little, Brown.

Keys, David Patrick, and John F. Galliher (2000). Confronting the drug control establishment: Alfred Lindesmith as a public intellectual. Albany: State University of New York Press (SUNY series in deviance and social control).

King, Rufus (1974). The drug hang-up: America's fifty-year folly, 2nd ed. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas.

Lindesmith, Alfred Ray (1965). The addict and the law. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Mc Williams, John C. (1990). The protectors: Harry J. Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 1930-1962. Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses.

Musto, D. F. (1999). The American disease: Origins of narcotics control. 3rd edition, New York: Oxford University Press.

Walker III, William O. Ed. (1996). Drugs in the Western hemisphere: An odyssey of cultures in conflict. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources (Jaguar Books on Latin America, no. 12).

Rufus King

Revised by James T. McDonough, Jr.