Writing in “The Traffic In Narcotics” in 1953, a book accepted then as an authoritative work — on among other things, marijuana — Harry Anslinger, the first United States Commissioner of Narcotics, claimed that medical experts agreed that even a small dose of cannabis could cause “intense intoxication, raving fits, [and]criminal assaults” in people.
The problem with the commissioner's statement? None of it was true.
There weren't any medical experts claiming any such thing. Anslinger knew that yet, insisted it was true.
Anslinger, the man who would command federal drug policy for more than 30 years, also knew that small doses of marijuana didn't do what he claimed. And he knew that the medical literature of the time had no evidence of the effects he wildly exaggerated.
As Anslinger had before with “facts” about marijuana — he simply made them up. “The Traffic In Narcotics” has no supporting evidence and no quoted sources, even though it was taken as the authoritative road map for drug policy. Think about that: In 1953, the man responsible for overseeing drug policy in America regularly claimed things about drugs – marijuana, especially – that he knew were blatantly false about a problem he knew America did not have.
So, if Anslinger knew he wasn't solving an actual problem in America, what so-called problem was he actually trying to solve, why, and for whom? It helps to understand how Anslinger became exposed to the world of drugs at all.
Born of German and Swiss stock (white European — an important detail) in 1892 in Altoona, Pennsylvania, Anslinger followed his father into working for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Being ambitious and clever, the 23-year-old Anslinger got promoted to captain of railroad police in 1915 after saving the railroad money on a negligence claim. An astute bureaucrat, Anslinger turned that position into a series of assignments and advisory roles from 1917 to 1928 that took him around the world with an increasing focus on international drug trafficking.
Was drug trafficking a real problem in the world at that time? Other countries tried to wave Anslinger off, according to accounts in his book. In many cultures, drugs weren't encouraged, but they weren't discouraged, either. They were an accepted part of the culture.
Similarly, if drugs were a real problem in America, then it's notable that police departments and local newspapers weren't reporting about them prior to 1930 when Anslinger became US Commissioner of Narcotics. But significant newspaper reporting does begin after 1930 when Anslinger began to regularly speak with the press — feeding journalists stories, not the other way around. Throughout “The Traffic In Narcotics,” Anslinger recounts newspaper stories without attribution or even a single footnote. He describes behaviors that simply don't jibe with the long-observed and experienced effects of marijuana.
If Anslinger knew why marijuana was bad, he consistently failed to provide actual evidence.
Morphine and cocaine were legal and used commercially in medicines and other preparations that were under a patchwork of state regulations. Cannabis was available and used medicinally in the form of liquids and hashish, but smoking marijuana was virtually unknown in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Yet when Anslinger returned to America in 1929 as a newly minted prohibition cop, he was more concerned with marijuana than any other potential “drug problem” facing America. As he wrote in “The Traffic In Narcotics:” “In the earliest stages of [marijuana]intoxication … the willpower is destroyed … the moral barricades are broken down and often debauchery and sexuality results. … The drug has a corroding effect on the body and on the mind … often leading to insanity after prolonged use.”
That Anslinger reached his conclusions without sourcing or providing verifiable data didn't stop him from writing with absolute authority, regardless of the subject.
In the classic book, “Reefer Madness,” author Larry Sloman recounts that Anslinger wrote irresponsibly about sharks for the June 12, 1926, Saturday Evening Post. In the article, Anslinger insists that sharks attacking humans is a myth and that the real villains of the sea are barracudas. Sloman quotes Anslinger: “It may be safely stated that unless a shark is ravenously hungry, he will not attack a human being unless he is positive that the man has been drowned or is absolutely helpless. He has never been known to attack anything that is perfectly healthy.”
Anslinger wrote more articles. He wrote books. He wrote pamphlets. He was especially productive on the subject of marijuana, which he wrote about with the same lack of factual rigor. Anslinger's own words also consistently reveal a distinctly racist attitude.
In “Cannabis: A History,” Booker-listed author Martin Booth quotes from a 1934 Anslinger anti-marijuana pamphlet where one of the marijuana-smoking perps is described as a “ginger-colored n—–.” Anslinger was forced to withdraw the pamphlet after a group of black community leaders in Pennsylvania complained.
In “Reefer Madness,” Sloman describes the contents of Anslinger's infamous “gore file,” a collection of marijuana horror stories Anslinger relied upon (knowing they weren't true) to push his cause. It isn't just Anslinger's language reveals his possible motives; it's his consistent reliance on obvious racist memes and stereotypes:
“West Va. — Negro raped a girl eight years of age. Two Negroes took a girl fourteen years old and kept her for two days in a hut under the influence of marijuana. Upon recovery she was found to be suffering from syphilis.”
“Negro charged with burglary so impressed jury with his story of people jumping out of their graves and grabbing him that he got a hung jury. He admitted that he was a marijuana smoker.”
“Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with female students (white) smoking and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result pregnancy.”
Anslinger's gore file goes on like that for dozens of pages and became a basis for Anslinger's case against marijuana.
Booth sums up Anslinger this way: “Anslinger discouraged any unbiased scientific investigation or evaluation. He even prevented marijuana from being provided to respectable research institutions for the purpose of research. From the mid-1930's onwards, he engaged upon a vigorous and sustained anti-marijuana campaign without a reasoned justification other than his personal prejudice. With few experts able to counter his claims, he was at liberty to preach as he pleased … .”
But there's more to his story and what may have shaped his vision.
Did he see people of color using a drug? Or did he see people of color – and a drug they were using – and the combination as a means to an end? Did Anslinger act out of the knowledge available in his era or out of a deeper prejudice?
In the next installment, Blunt Truths will dig deeper into Anslinger's history.