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Rufus King Collection | Drug Hang Up


The Drug Hang Up, America's Fifty-Year Folly

by Rufus King

Chapter 9

Mephistopheles and Pot

FOR ALL THAT he is an amiable gentleman at close range, Harry Jacob Anslinger, who ran the U.S. Narcotics Bureau for more than three decades, may well stand in our history as one of the most tryrannical oppressors of his fellow citizens ever to be sustained in public office by this republic. Like his counterpart John Edgar Hoover, Anslinger built an impregnable empire within the federal structure by portraying himself to members of Congress, and to their electorates back home, as an indispensable defender against the forces of evil. But of the two, Anslinger was far more recklessly fanatical, and while Hoover created a law-enforcement agency that has developed incomparably high standards for itself and its imitators, Narcotics Bureau agents have been widely scorned among professionals as irresponsible persecutors often unworthy of the authority of a federal badge.

It will be recalled that the federal government first became concerned with drugs quite haphazardly, from U.S. efforts to curb trafficking at the international level plus the fact that the Hague Convention committed signatories to control domestic drug use as well. Chance similarly brought Commissioner Anslinger into the picture as narcotics czar. A native Pennsylvania Dutchman, with hairless pate, gravel voice, and taurine neck, Anslinger came indirectly from a promising career in the U.S. Foreign Service. His first State Department assignment, at the outbreak of World War I, was as liaison to the Efficiency Board of the War Department's Ordinance Division, and from this he was posted in 1918 as an attache to the American legation at The Hague. He remained in Holland until 1921, participating on the peripheries of the American delegation to Versailles, then served two years as vice consul at Hamburg. In 1923 he was elevated to the rank of consul and dispatched to La Guaira, Venezuela, whence he was transferred to Nassau in the Bahamas to head the U.S. Consulate there.

In the latter post, Consul Anslinger negotiated successfully with British authorities to dry up an immense flow of bootleg liquor moving in from the West Indies, and it was this diplomatic achievement that brought him to the attention of the beleaguered Prohibition authorities in Treasury. As a result, he was borrowed from the State Department and brought back to Washington to become chief of the Division of Foreign Control in the Treasury Department's Prohibition Bureau, advancing three years later, in 1929, to the post of Assistant Commissioner of Prohibition. (Note this close personal link, which tends to strengthen the theory, heretofore advanced, that federal drug-law enforcement policies were significantly shaped at the outset by parallels in the experience with Prohibition.)

Early in 1930, scandal touched the office of Deputy Commissioner L. G. Nutt, whose province had been enforcement of the narcotic laws. A federal grand jury found that his agents in New York had grossly falsified their records by reporting city police cases as federal arrests, and further suggested a possibility of outright collusion between federal officers and prominent illegal traffickers. In the shakeup which followed, Nutt was removed and Assistant Conunissioner Anslinger, having up to that time had nothing to do with the narcotic side of the Bureau's operations, was given an interim appointment to Nutt's post. At this juncture, however, perhaps partly to quiet criticism, Congress acted on a reorganization measure which took drug control out of the Prohibition Bureau altogether and created an independent Bureau of Narcotics in the Treasury Department. President Hoover named Anslinger to fill the new office of Commissioner of Narcotics on August 12, 1930.

We shall hear much of Harry Anslinger in the rest of this narrative, even in the period after 1962, when the combined determination of President Kennedy and his Attorney General brother sufficed to push him out of the commissioner post. For not only has he dominated every area of drug-law enforcement on the home front with overbearing energy, he has at the same time similarly dominated most policy deliberations on the international scene, and this latter power he continued to wield with unabated vigor until early 1970. Heading the U.S. delegation to the old League of Nations Opium Advisory Committee and that of its successor, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs-and every significant special conference and convention on the subject since the Hoover regime-has always been Commissioner Anslinger.

Nor has he ever lost his diplomatic, if somewhat heavy-handed, touch in playing the power of his connections in Washington skillfully in concert with his thundering voice at Geneva and the U.N. compound in New York. Whenever he sought to propagate some new dogma or win additional concessions at home, delegates and plenipotentiaries from the high contracting parties would soon be heard chorusing support in their international convocations, while he achieved notable changes in the attitudes and policies of sister nations by brow-beating their delegates in international gatherings with support in the form of Anslinger inspired statements from U.S. officials or sometimes even made-to-order congressional resolutions.

As commissioner he always fought to win, sometimes not by Marquis of Queensbury rules and seldom gracefully. He tended to respond to criticism with vituperative roars. And for a quarter of a century, from his assumption of office in 1930 until he was finally obliged to soften his stand slightly in the late fifties, he opposed all public discussion aimed at enlightening Americans about the drug problem or exploring alternatives to his overbearing policies, on the ground that anything akin to education or open-mindedness would aggravate the situation and stir the curiosity of potential new victims. Those who questioned his Bureau were denounced as "self-styled experts, bleeding-hearts, ax-grinders," and "meddling do-gooders.'

But on the other hand, despite its modest resources no agency in Washington responded faster than the Bureau of Narcotics to any hint of a request or solicitation of a favor from Capitol Hill or from less important sources. If a congressman wanted to regale some backwater constituents with tales about the war on dope (and the congressman's heroic role in it), the Bureau would oblige with a script; if a high school civics class wrote for information, it would receive a sheaf of handouts and possibly a follow-up call or visit from a local Narcotics Bureau office; and if someone in the entourage of a Personage chanced to become addicted, arrangements could sometimes be made for sheltered treatment without fear of embarrassing attention from drug authorities.

The Narcotics Bureau was always a one-man domain. The only lieutenant to emerge with stature in his own right was Malachi Harney, whose distinction lay not in softening any of the Bureau’s hard-to-swallow fixations but in promulgating them with notably more wit and grace than his chief. When it became obvious that Anslinger, like Hoover, had no intention of retiring in the usual tradition to make a place for a subordinate, Harney jumped into the nominally higher post of Assistant Secretary in charge of all Treasury law enforcement (nominal with respect to asserting authority over the Bureau, at least), and went into retirement from there.

The Marijuana Tax Act, which became law on August 2, 1937, and which suddenly brought cannabis sativa into the opium-coca-narcotic pattern, is perhaps the strongest illustration of Commissioner Anslinger's extraordinary powers-and of how abusively he sometimes contrived to wield them. Certainly the launching of a full-blown federal prohibition against this unimportant garden weed will long remain a high-water mark of national fatuity; and the way the Act was slipped through Congress highlights the Commissioner's amazing adeptness at steering federal lawmakers in whatever direction he chose, although there are other achievements-scaring much of the world witless over the allegedly unique menace of heroin, innovating savage mandatory minimum penalties, imposing international travel restrictions on drug addicts-that may merit equal honors as monuments to unwarranted frenzy and panicky misdirection.

The North American marijuana plant is a weakling member of the great botanical family of Indian hemp, from which comes the best of natural fibers for twine and rope as well as, in other variants, stronger preparations known as bhang and ganja, and (in pure resin) hashish or charas. The active ingredient in marijuana, from the strain cannabis sativa, is indisputably a drug, and a hallucinogen at that, but it is not addicting, and in the strength encountered when smoked as "pot" it is at most no more than mildly intoxicating. The impact of the drug in its entire range of potencies is comparable to that of alcohol: a few susceptibly individuals seem to lapse into temporary panic or mild psychotic episodes, some alterations of perception and motor coordination attend its use, and repeated intoxication with the stronger extracts has been inconclusively associated with insanity.

Ganja and hashish are believed to have been identified and used as both medicaments and ceremonial intoxicants in the Middle East several millennia before the birth of Christ. Cannabis was long a mainstay among soothing and healing elixirs and is still used in medical practice where doctors remain cool-headed, as in Great Britain. Traditionally hashish was eaten and ganja was ingested after being brewed into a tea. Like opium, the milder marijuana (which bears the same relation to hashish that beer does to hundred-proof spirits) came to be smoked only after the world learned the ritual of combustion-inhalation from the enjoyment of tobacco. Pot smoking was taken up in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century, although for many years it did not achieve much popularity outside of small avant-garde circles. The practice (and the plant: cannabis sativa was not indigenous to the western hemisphere) subsequently reached the West Indies from Europe or Africa, and was thereafter widely embraced in Latin America and Mexico. But marijuana made no significant appearance in the United States until after World War I.

In the 1920's, use of the drug in this country was confined to blacks who came from or were influenced by the Caribbean, and to Mexican-Americans. It was early viewed with suspicion because of total ignorance about it in most quarters, the general climate created by Prohibition, association with these lowest of foreign minorities, prejudice against cigarettes, and the dim idea that it was somehow capable of being bracketed with opium smoking.

Sinister associations also derived from a half-remembered legend of the Moslem world, about a secret society in the Middle Ages which allegedly partook of hemp in connection with its efforts to eliminate false prophets of Allah by murder-its leader was named Hashishin, from which were supposedly derived both "hashish" and "assassin."

British authorities in India, worldly about such things, arranged long ago for a special commission to make an elaborate study of all aspects of drug use of Indian hemp. The commission's report, submitted in 1894, concluded, in essence, that moderate indulgence produced no significant mental or moral injuries, caused no physical damage, and aroused no more compulsion to excesses than beverage alcohol, with which ganja tea was favorably compared. Other authorities in the intervening years have generally reached similar conclusions, though differentiating the pure and potent hashish (which, the Indian commission suspected, might have had some connection with little-understood "madness" in Indian asylums) from the milder and more innocuous marijuana for smoking (usually consisting of the seeds, leaves, and stalks of the female plant, dried and broken up into combustible shreds).

Nonetheless, and without reliable current data to go on, several states along the Mexican border enacted marijuana-prohibition laws in the early thirties. And at this juncture there appeared on the scene a fanatical father-and-son team who played somewhat the same role in whipping up hysteria about marijuana as- Mrs. Vanderbilt had played with respect to opium and cocaine a quarter of a century earlier.

The marijuana crusaders were Earle Albert Rowell and his son Robert. Father Rowell had been campaigning against the "weed of madness" since the mid-1920's, asserting in pamphlets and from lecture platforms that the deadly "reefer" destroyed will power, perverted and corrupted all moral standards, induced the commission of violent crimes, and inevitably led to insanity. Mental hospitals were being filled with marijuana victims, he warned. Each person enslaved to this terrifying new addiction was driven forthwith to make smokers of others, thus spreading the evil in a chain reaction. Moreover, the nation was about to be engulfed in a holocaust of industrial accidents and highway mishaps caused by marijuana intoxication.

Son Rowell joined at the peak of the campaign, helping his father lecture up and down the land, and aiding him in personally destroying fields of hemp whenever they happened to chance upon the sinister crop. It must be added in fairness, however, that the Rowells kept sounding one note of likely truth in their zealous campaign against marijuana which has not been repeated since with the intensity it deserves. As a side issue, they vociferously disapproved the use of alcohol and tobacco, and they hammered on the point that habituation to smoking tobacco very often preceded smoking of the sinister "joint." They warned that in allowing itself to be enslaved by the merchandisers of cigarettes, the nation was setting itself up for an inevitable ultimate takeover by peddlers of & reefer (now being seriously programmed, incidentally, by high-priced Madison Avenue talent for some of the tobacco giants). In short, they argued that tobacco addiction was a bad thing because it could nourish an appetite for "something stronger."

The Narcotics Bureau moved into the campaign in the mid 1930's, throwing the authority of the United States government behind the alarming, if ridiculous, proposition that marijuana smoking was causing many violent crimes such as assault, rape, and murder. Intervention by the federal tax agency was suddenly imperative to head off an unprecedented crime wave. And of course this new menace was having its most sinister effects on innocent young people, including teenagers and moppets in schoolyards. Even the traffic-accident theme was played, noteworthy in this context in relation to its cynical reappearance, thirty years later and with far more eclat, when the focus had shifted to amphetamines and other pep pills.

Credit for pushing Commissioner Anslinger and the Treasury Department into this quixotic partnership with the Rowells and other fanatics of the period must doubtless go in some part to his rival, Director Hoover, a few blocks down the street in justice. By the middle thirties the FBI had acquired a place in the public eye that made its chief a national figure of demigod proportions. Compared with the spectacular closing of the Lindbergh case, shoot-outs against characters like Karpis and Dillinger, and the G-men's dramatic gallery of public enemies, Anslinger's battles against dope rings and drug fiends were becoming tame stuff. Though the Treasury men continued-as always-to upstage Hoover on the international scene (where they were beginning to make headway building up the Mafia bugaboo), Anslinger was sorely in need of a new angle at home. And immediately at hand was the commotion being raised by the Rowells, with the prospect of attracting much headline attention in an official campaign to stamp out their "weed of madness." Moreover, it soon became apparent that legislation on the subject would attract favorable notice and put Anslinger back in the limelight on Capitol Hill.

So in the 75th Congress several marijuana bills were introduced, all proposing to extend the Narcotic Bureau's authority. The one which became law was H.R. 6385, sponsored principally by Representative Robert L. Doughton, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. At the hearings, in the spring of 1937, a brilliant young Treasury counsel, Clinton M. Hester, set the stage, but the performance was essentially Anslinger's, and the support he marshaled for the bill was typical. In lieu of expert analysis or scientific findings, the Committee was told that marijuana was a monstrous Mr. Hyde having none of the offsetting virtues of Dr. Jekyll; that in antiquity it had disrupted the Moslem world by driving Hashishin's army of fanatics to murder viciously and at random throughout the Middle East; and that a Treasury study conducted by his Bureau proved that the drug was being used widely by high school students who smoked it in cigarettes-with effects characterized as "deadly."

The record was loaded with newspaper clippings and lurid accounts of individual crimes allegedly caused by marijuana intoxication, together with free-swinging references to "experts" from other lands. For example, Dr. J. Bouquet, a Tunisian, had found in his studies (not otherwise described) that the use of cannabis caused crime, produced addiction, and resulted in sterility-and also that it induced blind rages in his subjects, inevitably causing mental deterioration and leading ultimately to insanity. For window dressing, a puzzling selection of career government employees was paraded to the stand: a chemist consultant to the Department of Agriculture who said that poisonous concentrations of marijuana caused mental and physical deterioration in dogs; a chemist from the Treasury Department who described the hemp plant and how it was cultivated and harvested; a botanist from the Department of Agriculture who informed the Committee about the commercial uses of hemp; and a government veterinarian who assured the Committee that marijuana had no valid medicinal uses for animals.

There was a surprising opposition witness. We have seen how often the American Medical Association tended to knuckle under in the early controversies over the opiates, and we shall see the good doctors strike their colors again in subsequent chapters. But at the House marijuana hearings, the official AMA spokesman, Dr. William C. Woodward, took a determined stand against the bill, insisting that no scientific evidence had been adduced about the dangers of the drug, that prior representations of the AMA position had been distorted, and that cannabis actually had valid medical uses and might well be found to have even more in psychiatric therapy. Dr. Woodward challenged the Committee, demanding to know why inquiry had not been made of the Bureau of Prisons whether there were in fact any persons convicted of marijuana-induced crimes in custody, why the Children’s Bureau had not been consulted about the charge that youngsters were smoking marijuana cigarettes and the Office of Education about alleged spreading of the habit in schools, and how it happened that spokesmen from the Division of Mental Hygiene and the Division of Pharmacology of the Public Health Service had not appeared. He related scornfully that at the two federal narcotic farms there was not a single record of any marijuana or cannabis addiction ever having come to the attention of the medical staffs of these facilities.

This scrappy spokesman urged the Committee to leave the marijuana problem to local authorities, at least until some reputable scientific basis for federal control was discovered. But like others in the path of the Anslinger steamroller, he was flattened. His testimony touched off a barrage of hostile questions from Committee members, and he had obviously little persuasive effect.

The marijuana bill sailed through the House, and when it reached the Senate, Hester and Anslinger put on the same show more briefly, entertaining the Senate committee with additional hair-raising stories about specific crimes supposedly caused by the drug. But on one point Anslinger took a square position which is particularly noteworthy in the light of subsequent developments: he had told the House committee, in response to a direct question, that there was absolutely no connection between the use of marijuana and addiction to opium and coca products: 'No, sir; I have not heard of a case of that kind. I think it is an entirely different class. The marijuana addict does not go in that direction." And when he came to the Senate hearing he was even more emphatic, insisting that marijuana users were "an entirely new class," totally unrelated to any part of the opium traffic: "The opium user is around 35 to 40 years old. These users are 20 years old and know nothing of heroin or morphine."

Congressional sponsors pulled out all stops. Representative Hamilton Fish, for example, who was also pushing for a ban on cannabis imports, told a nationwide audience: "Marijuana is used largely in the form of cigarettes, which cause delusions and produce insanity and often lead to atrocities that only a drugsoaked mind could conceive. Marijuana is a sinister drug that has only recently become available and popular among the younger element."

The Senate also acted in docile and unanimous compliance with the Bureau7s wishes, and President Roosevelt signed the Act into law on August 2, 1937.