Harry J. Anslinger retired from the now-defunct Federal Bureau of Narcotics 60 years in the past, however he stays the final word boogey man of each pot smoker on the earth—a form of atavistic “human paraquat” whose overt racism and institutional cruelty stays on the coronary heart of the continuing international Struggle on Medication.
Anslinger returned to public consciousness final week with the discharge (on Hulu) of The United States vs. Billie Holiday, a brand new movie from Lee Daniels (Push, Empire) telling the true story of how America’s first “drug czar” used the complete energy of federal regulation enforcement to focus on the legendary jazz singer for a number of arrests, in the end hounding her into an early grave.
Fed narcotics company constructed racism into its work
Anchored by an excellent Golden-Globe-winning performance from Andra Day within the title position, the story—primarily based partly on Johann Hari’s insightful e book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs—rightly casts Anslinger because the villain. However with the narrative centered on Vacation herself, and a real-life undercover FBN agent tasked with taking her down, the pinnacle of the FBN doesn’t get loads of display time.
Which means viewers outraged by the occasions depicted will seemingly be left with loads of questions concerning the man behind this modern-day inquisition.
Harry Anslinger’s position
Talking as somebody who as soon as took a highway journey to go to Harry Anslinger’s grave in rural Pennsylvania, smoke a joint, plant a seed, and “water it in”—see a really particular episode of my podcast Great Moments in Weed History—this can be a piece of historical past that have to be understood, lest we proceed to repeat it endlessly.
For instance, Anslinger’s begin in regulation enforcement got here as a number one proponent of alcohol prohibition, a place he steadfastly supported regardless of its failure by each attainable metric.
Transferring from booze the medication
By the point the Struggle on Booze led to 1933, Anslinger had already moved on to imposing current prohibitions towards opioids and different narcotics, together with by spearheading a marketing campaign to focus on physicians offering upkeep doses to these battling habit. Greater than 20,000 medical doctors can be arrested on Anslinger’s orders, successfully ending the apply, whereas pushing customers (together with Billie Vacation) to seek out medication on the road and creating an extremely profitable new income stream for organized crime simply as the top of the bootlegging period threatened to go away these gangsters excessive and dry.
Anslinger would finally come to just accept that alcohol prohibition was a horrible failure. However as an alternative of throwing open the taverns, he needed to double down.
In 1928, he wrote a place paper calling for an extension of the Volstead Act (alcohol prohibition) to focus on not simply those that manufacture, distribute, and promote alcoholic drinks, but additionally those that purchase and devour the drug.
Six months in jail for purchasing a bottle
In line with Harry’s plan, a primary offense for unlawful buy of alcohol would imply a compulsory minimal of six months in jail.
However then two years later—sensing a shift within the prevailing political winds—he abruptly declared Prohibition to be a misplaced trigger.
Although famously, this wasn’t his final try at banning one thing.
On January 14, 1937, Anslinger headed a marijuana convention in Washington, DC, attended by authorities authorities and lecturers.
At one level the Treasury Division’s main chemist requested what impact banning hemp seeds might need on the birdseed business. Anslinger replied, in all seriousness, that it may make caged birds cease singing.
Not that such a chance modified the prohibitionists’ minds any.
The one physician who spoke, opposed prohibition
The boys who banned marijuana have been equally unfazed by the testimony of Dr. William C. Woodward of the American Medical Affiliation, the one speaker to current himself as a hostile witness. Each a doctor and an lawyer, Dr. Woodward principally known as bullshit on all the proceedings:
1937 Act gave Anslinger energy to harass jazz artists
With the following passage of the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, federal hashish prohibition grew to become the regulation of the land. Anslinger instantly used his new energy to focus on two teams specifically—Mexican-American immigrants (together with many who lately arrived as struggle refugees) and African-American jazz musicians.
Previous to and even after federal prohibition, a variety of jazz greats recorded weedy torch songs like Reefer Man (Cab Calloway), If You’re a Viper (Fat Waller), Texas Tea Get together (Benny Goodman), Muggles (Louis Armstrong), Gimme a Reefer (Bessie Smith), Once I Get Low, I Get Excessive (Ella Fitzgerald), and I’m Feeling Excessive and Glad (Gene Krupa).
A plan to carry down all the style of music
In a memo to his FBN subject brokers, Anslinger detailed a plan to retaliate by taking down all the jazz scene without delay, writing: Please put together all circumstances in your jurisdiction involving musicians in violation of the marijuana legal guidelines. We can have a terrific nationwide round-up arrest of all such individuals on a single day.
However these plans fizzled, as detailed in Chasing the Scream:
A childhood marked by trauma
After enduring a childhood marked by excessive trauma, abuse and heartbreak, Billie Vacation had developed a substance abuse downside and was extensively identified to be a person of heroin and different medication. However that’s not what put a goal on her again.
Harry Anslinger’s obsession with Billie Vacation started on the evening in 1939 when she sang Unusual Fruit in public for the primary time. A searing indictment of the lynching of Black individuals as a method of imposing white supremacy, the tune touched a nerve with audiences, notably when sung with Vacation’s signature mixture of pathos and defiance.
FBI: Cease singing ‘Unusual Fruit,’ or else
Virtually instantly, the FBN warned her to cease singing Unusual Fruit or to face the implications. She would proceed to carry out it till her demise.
Anslinger despatched a Black spy to surveil Billie Vacation. The primary time he busted her by pretending to ship a telegram. After that, he simply stored following her.
“I had so many shut conversations along with her, about so many issues,” this narc later reported. “She was the sort who would make anybody sympathetic as a result of she was the loving kind.”
Arrange by her personal man
In the meantime, Billy Vacation made strikes to rid herself of one other abusive man, her husband and supervisor Louis McKay, who bodily assaulted her to the purpose she typically wanted to tape up her ribcage simply to sing. When McKay, enraged by Holliday leaving him, realized that Anslinger was on her tail, he traveled to Washington, DC and met with the pinnacle of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
Collectively they plotted to set Vacation up for one more bust.
In line with Chasing the Scream:
Sadistic harassment even within the hospital
When she acquired out, Anslinger re-assigned the high-profile case to his favourite agent, Colonel George White, who was generally known as a real sadist. White set Vacation up for her ultimate bust by planting medication on her whereas she was within the hospital.
She was then held as a digital prisoner, denied correct healthcare, any guests, and even books to learn. On the road outdoors the hospital, protesters held up indicators studying “Let Woman Stay,” however she would die proper there within the hospital, surrounded by cops.
All by way of the 1950’s, as hashish continued to unfold through the underground, Anslinger would efficiently push for more and more draconian penalties, together with for easy possession, by straight linking hashish and Communism in the course of the peak of the pink scare. By no means thoughts the whole lack of any credible proof to again up his claims of an unlimited plot out of Moscow to enslave America to marijuana habit.
And so, from its onset, the Struggle on Medication labored to implement each white supremacy and the crushing of political dissent—a one-two punch that continues immediately.