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 type of atavistic “human paraquat” whose overt racism and institutional cruelty stays on the coronary heart of the continuing international Battle on Medicine.
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 function, the story—primarily based partially on Johann Hari’s insightful guide Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs—rightly casts Anslinger because the villain. However with the narrative targeted on Vacation herself, and a real-life undercover FBN agent tasked with taking her down, the pinnacle of the FBN doesn’t get plenty of display time.
Which means viewers outraged by the occasions depicted will doubtless be left with plenty of questions concerning the man behind this modern-day inquisition.
Harry Anslinger’s function
Talking as somebody who as soon as took a street 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 Battle on Booze resulted in 1933, Anslinger had already moved on to implementing present prohibitions towards opioids and different narcotics, together with by spearheading a marketing campaign to focus on physicians offering upkeep doses to these combating habit. Greater than 20,000 docs 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 tip of the bootlegging period threatened to depart these gangsters excessive and dry.
Anslinger would finally come to just accept that alcohol prohibition was a horrible failure. However as a substitute 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 eat the drug.
Six months in jail for getting 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 teachers.
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 might make caged birds cease singing.
Not that such a risk modified the prohibitionists’ minds any.
The one physician who spoke, opposed prohibition
The lads 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 the whole proceedings:
1937 Act gave Anslinger energy to harass jazz artists
With the next 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 warfare 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 Occasion (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 Pleased (Gene Krupa).
A plan to carry down the whole style of music
In a memo to his FBN subject brokers, Anslinger detailed a plan to retaliate by taking down the whole jazz scene directly, writing: Please put together all circumstances in your jurisdiction involving musicians in violation of the marijuana legal guidelines. We can have an amazing 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 drawback and was extensively identified to be a consumer 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 night time in 1939 when she sang Unusual Fruit in public for the primary time. A searing indictment of the lynching of Black folks as a method of implementing white supremacy, the music 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 dying.
Anslinger despatched a Black secret agent to surveil Billie Vacation. The primary time he busted her by pretending to ship a telegram. After that, he simply saved following her.
“I had so many shut conversations along with her, about so many issues,” this narc later reported. “She was the kind who would make anybody sympathetic as a result of she was the loving sort.”
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 an additional 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 often known as a real sadist. White set Vacation up for her remaining 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 exterior the hospital, protesters held up indicators studying “Let Girl Stay,” however she would die proper there within the hospital, surrounded by cops.
All by means of the 1950’s, as hashish continued to unfold by way of the underground, Anslinger would efficiently push for more and more draconian penalties, together with for easy possession, by instantly linking hashish and Communism throughout the top of the pink scare. By no means thoughts the entire 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 Battle on Medicine labored to implement each white supremacy and the crushing of political dissent—a one-two punch that continues at this time.