Henry J Anslinger: A Vigorous Anti-Marijuana Campaigner
By David Bearman, MD for ABC-CLIO
Henry J. Anslinger was the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) and has been called the "father of the drug war." He was born in Altoona, Pennsylvanis in 1892. Anslinger married the niece of Andrew Mellon, noted financier and Secretary of the Treasury under President Herber Hoover. It was Mellon who appointed Anslinger to his post in 1930, a job he held for over 30 years until he was dumped in 1961 under the Kennedy administration.
There are several likely reasons for Anslinger's vigorous anti-marijuana crusade. His government career had begun at the Bureau of Prohibition in the 1920s, so he was familiar with banned substances. As the first head of the FBN, Anslinger needed an issue with which to build his reputation. He probably took advantage of the opportunity offered by heading a new government agency to define both the a problem and the a solution. Cannabis was an ideal vehicle for Anslinger to build a bureaucratic stronghold and ensure his own power. Anslinger took what heretofore (the consumption of cannabis) had not been seen as a problem.Until this point, marijuana had not only been a non-problem, but it had been an accepted medicine in the U.S. for over three-quarters of a century.
Anslinger used racism and the fear of violence to draw national attention to the consumption of cannabis. His strategy associated the word “marijuana” (then a foreign Mexican word) rather than the much more familiar “cannabis,” with depraved behavior and heinous acts. Mexican immigrants were becoming unpopular during the Depression as unemployment rose and newcomers were being accused of stealing jobs. Anslinger also played upon powerful racism against African Americans.
He shared conservative public concerns regarding the jazz scene in the 1920s and 1930s – music associated with black Americans. Anslinger saw jazz as wild, untamed, and primitive. Marijuana was associated with the jazz scene. Anslinger warned the American white middle-class that blacks and whites were dancing together in "tea houses." He was increasingly alarmed by African American musicians’ popularity with white women. Hints at race mixing or sex between the races as a result of marijuana was a part of Anslinger's propaganda.
Anslinger's crusade was aided by the nationwide Hearst newspaper chain, which published sensationalist “news” stories in its papers about marijuana use. These stories, sometimes written by Anslinger himself, talked about the “insanity, criminality, and death” caused by smoking marijuana, sometimes after just one joint. These alleged drug-crazed acts were reported in lurid magazine articles: "Youth Gone Loco,"and "Sex Crazing Drug Menace." The now well-known "Marijuana Assassin of Youth" appeared in the America magazine in 1937. In a typical piece, Anslinger wrote, "No one knows when he places a marijuana cigarette to his lips, whether he will become a joyous reveler in a musical heaven, a mad insensate, a calm philosopher, or a crazed killer."
Anslinger worked hard at getting uniform drug laws passed in all state and the federal legislatures. Anslinger frequented parent’s and teacher’s meetings giving inflammatory speeches about the dangers of marijuana. This intense propaganda campaign led to the passage of anti-marijuana laws in many states. In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Stamp Act was passed. While it did not make marijuana illegal, the law subjected the drug to strict taxing procedures. Any violations of the tax regulations would result in heavy penalties. The Act simply made it too complicated and legally dangerous to deal in marijuana. The Marijuana Tax Act was only one of Anslinger's successes. One of his last acts was to secure passage of the 1960 UN Convention on Drugs, a United Nations agreement designed to combat drug abuse and illegal drug trafficking. Anslinger left the Bureau of Narcotics during the Kennedy administration in 1961. He died in 1975.