Harry J. Anslinger (1892–1975) served as the first commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics after its inception in 1930. For the next three decades, the staunch anti-drug crusader and his bureau's propaganda efforts shaped public opinion on the abuse of illicit substances, including marijuana.
The eighth of nine children, Harry Jacob Anslinger was born on May 20, 1892, in Altoona, Pennsylvania, to German-speaking immigrants Robert and Rosa. Rosa (born Christiana Rosina Fladt) hailed from Baden, Germany, and Robert from Bern, Switzerland. Supported by Robert's work as a barber, the couple lived in New York City in the 1880s. Before Harry's birth, they moved to railroad-and-steel Altoona, in west-central Pennsylvania, where Anslinger's father went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Anslinger experienced a pivotal episode in his youth that instilled in him a fear of all addictive substances. At around age 12, he heard agonized wails while visiting a neighbor couple's home. The husband told him that his wife was ill and asked Anslinger to run to the nearest pharmacy and procure some medicine for the woman, and Anslinger was shocked to learn that he had been sent to buy morphine. The highly addictive opiate was so readily available at the turn of the 20th century that a 12-year-old boy could legally purchase it from a neighborhood druggist.
At age 14, Anslinger began working for the Pennsylvania Railroad, laying track and listening with keen interest to his coworkers' furtive talk of the Black Hand, a crime ring with deep roots in the Sicilian-immigrant community. In 1909, although he never earned a high-school degree, he was accepted as a student at Altoona Business College. He then completed a two-year degree at Pennsylvania State College, where he also took business and engineering courses.
Still employed with the Pennsylvania Railroad, Anslinger eventually advanced to a job as claims investigator and was tasked with ferreting out cases of insurance fraud when exemployees filed compensation claims for workplace injuries. One of his bosses in the railroad police unit was appointed the chief of the Pennsylvania state police force, and in 1916 he recruited Anslinger for what would become his first government post. In Harrisburg, the state capital, Anslinger assisted the new chief in reorganizing the state troopers and also worked as an arson investigator.
During World War I, Anslinger volunteered for active military duty, but a childhood injury had left him with compromised vision in one eye, and he was ineligible for combat. Instead, he was given a civilian assignment with the Ordinance Division of the U.S. War Department, and his fluency in German prompted his transfer to the U.S. State Department. Despite the fact that he had not earned a high-school diploma, he rose rapidly through the diplomatic ranks, starting with a post as an attaché to the American Legation in the Dutch city of The Hague. In 1921, he was assigned to the U.S. consulate in Hamburg, Germany, where he served two years. He was reminded how ruinous addiction to opiates could be when he attempted to deal with U.S. military personnel who, stationed in a city well known as a hub of international narcotics trafficking, were addicted to heroin.
Anslinger's next appointment was as the new consul in La Guaira, Venezuela, which began in 1923 and lasted three years. By this point, he had married Martha Kind Denniston, a Pennsylvania native with a son from an earlier marriage, and they lived with him in La Guaira. Denniston was distantly related to the powerful Mellon family, and U.S. Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon would become an important patron at the start of Anslinger's long career in Washington, D.C.
Anslinger finally landed in Washington at the U.S. Treasury's Bureau of Prohibition in 1929. As an assistant commissioner, his brief entailed rooting out corruption among the hundreds of regional and local Prohibition agents. He earned a law degree in 1930 from American University, the same year that President Herbert Hoover joined with Secretary Mellon to create the FBN (Federal Bureau of Narcotics) inside the Treasury Department. Anslinger became the first commissioner of the FBN and would hold this post for the next 32 years. Meanwhile, Prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933.
A federal statute had been put in place in late 1914 that dramatically restricted the manufacture and sale of morphine and related opiates like heroin within the United States. Cocaine, a stimulant and topical anesthetic, also fell under the scope of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914. As FBN commissioner, Anslinger's role was to oversee current law enforcement regarding these substances, alert senior government officials and members of Congress about potential loopholes in federal legislation, and campaign for increased surveillance on all fronts. Although he did not initially view marijuana as a similar threat to public health and safety, Alabama anti-drug crusader Richmond P. Hobson did. Hobson contacted Anslinger, arguing that, in the South as well as certain northern U.S. cities, marijuana cigarettes posed a danger to community values.
Marijuana, also known by its scientific names cannabis india and cannabis sativa, was an Asian import cultivated in the southern half of North America beginning in the 1700s. Commonly known as Indian hemp, it was a staple of rope manufacturing for decades, but certain growing conditions would boost its psychoactive properties. Hemp was easy to grow, easy to find, and easy to use, particularly in the form of hand-rolled cigarettes that resembled ordinary nicotine products but emitted a distinctive, resinous odor when lit. As a drug of abuse, marijuana was not widely known to the American public until Anslinger took up Hobson's cause and sounded the warning about its perils.
Although marijuana was not classified as an illicit drug, Anslinger enlisted the help of professionals to remedy this. Members of the American Medical Association were recruited, impaneled, and issued reports attesting to the drug's potential to become habit-forming. The FBN was also eager to demonstrate that certain users risked mental-health problems that, as Anslinger contended, could remain undiagnosed but explosively triggered by marijuana use. In an article published in American Magazine's July 1937 issue, the FBN commissioner claimed that the recent suicide of a young woman, who had struggled with her academic performance because of marijuana use and then made a fatal leap out of a fifth-story window, “was murder. The killer was a narcotic known to America as marijuana, and to history as hashish.” His article shocked readers with its headline, “Marijuana: Assassin of Youth.”
In his American Magazine article, Anslinger went on to judge the innocuous-appearing tobacco-like substance “as dangerous as a coiled rattlesnake.” It was easy to obtain and even sold by some street food vendors. He warned of an underground epidemic emerging, not just in cities—where it was a particular favorite of jazz musicians—but in seemingly innocuous communities in the Midwest, especially among high-school and college students. Anslinger cited several notorious recent crimes and argued that their senseless violence or elements of sexual depravity were attributable to marijuana's lethal effects on some users.
In 1934, Congress passed the Uniform State Iarcotic Act, which replaced the Harrison Act and urged states to classify marijuana as an illegal drug. They began doing so after 1937, when the cultivation, possession, sale, or use of marijuana was proscribed by the Marijuana Tax Act which President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law on August 2, 1937. The FBN's anti-marijuana campaign was stoked by tabloid newspaper editors as well as by the 1936 film Reefer Madness, produced by a church group but quickly rising to cult status in an edited version released two years later.
As a result of Anslinger's efforts, marijuana arrests skyrocketed in U.S. cities. This burdened local courts, however, and there was some pushback. A 1944 report commissioned by New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, for example, disputed FBN claims about cannabis use. Within a few years, a generation of recently discharged U.S. war veterans returned to the United States with a taste for the highly addictive heroin, and this posed the greatest threat in most major U.S. cities during the 1950s. As FBN chief, Anslinger again sounded a public-health alarm and urged the nation's police departments to establish separate narcotics squads to uncover and prosecute users, sellers, and distribution networks.
One of the most enduring legacies of Anslinger's tenure at the FBN was his assertion that punitive prison sentences were an effective deterrent to illicit drug consumption. As evidence, he cited fewer low-level arrests for possession in states where harsher mandatory-minimum sentencing rules were in effect, although the statistics were questionable in their accuracy and subject to misinterpretation. Other claims he made were also challenged, and in the early 1950s he finally backed away from his assertion that marijuana could trigger permanent mental-health issues. However, he did not alter his view that its use would ease drug users' transition to heroin and other addictive and potentially deadly substances.
Anslinger's long career as a proponent of stiff anti-drug laws, coupled with the erroneous assertions issued by the FBN regarding psychoactive substances, made him a central figure in the academic and alternative histories of drug criminalization and substance-abuse treatment in the United States. The title of his 1937 article for American Magazine was borrowed by Alexandra Chasin for her 2016 book Assassin of Youth: A Kaleidoscopic History of Harry J. Anslinger's War on Drugs.
Anslinger, Harry Jacob, The Protectors: The Heroic Story of the Narcotics Agents, Citizens, and Officials in Their Unending, Unsung Battles against Organized Crime in America and Abroad, Farrar, Straus, 1964.
Chasin, Alexandra, Assassin of Youth: A Kaleidoscopic History of Harry J. Anslinger's War on Drugs, University of Chicago Press, 2016.
McWilliams, John, The Protectors: Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (1930–1962), University of Delaware Press, 1990.
American Magazine, July 1937, H.J. Anslinger with Courtney Ryley Cooper, “Marijuana: Assassin of Youth.”
Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography, April 1989, John C. McWilliams, “Unsung Partner against Crime: Harry J. Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 1930–1962,” pp. 207–236.
Pennsylvania State University Libraries, https://www.libraries.psu.edu/findingaids/1875.htm (January 21, 2018), “H.J. Anslinger Papers, 1835–1975.”
Politico.com , https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/01/drug-war-the-hunting-of-billie-holiday-114298 (January 17, 2015), Johann Hari, “The Hunting of Billie Holiday.”□