Harry Anslinger was born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, the son of an immigrant railroad worker. He earned an associate degree in engineering and business management and then went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad as an investigator. After rising to a captain of the railroad police, he worked for a variety of military and police organizations around the world between 1917 and 1928, with a focus on stopping a growing international trade in narcotics. After a twoyear tour with the Bureau of Prohibition—where Anslinger won a reputation as an honest and incorruptible agent in an agency noted for corruption—he became the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). He held that position for the next thirty-two years, a term rivaled only by J. Edgar Hoover’s tenure at the FBI.
Anslinger claimed that he knew what his life’s work would be from the age of twelve, when he heard the screams of a young morphine addict, screams that ended only when another boy returned from the pharmacist with more of the drug. Anslinger reported that he was appalled at how easy it was for children to secure such strong drugs.
He became an inveterate foe of all drug use, but especially of marijuana. In the 1920s, a movement of legislators, yellow journalists, and citizen groups started pressing for a federal ban on the use of marijuana, which supposedly played a major role in the corruption of youth, especially young girls. Scholars note that in addition to the moral elements of the crusade, chemical companies with an interest in eliminating hemp products, and southerners wanting to control cheap Mexican labor, also joined in the clamor.
William Randolph Hearst, whose papers led the fight, offered Anslinger space in his papers and magazines, and Anslinger gladly availed himself of the opportunity. He filled article after article with scare stories that not only warned against the alleged dangers of hemp, but also were overtly racist. ‘‘Colored students at the University of Minnesota partying with female students (white) smoking [marijuana] and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result pregnancy.’’ In another story he wrote that ‘‘Two Negros took a girl fourteen years old and kept her for two days under the influence of marijuana. Upon recovery she was found to be suffering from syphilis.’’
Medical opinion at that time did not believe marijuana to be so dangerous a drug, and some doctors argued that it had beneficial medicinal properties. Anslinger made sure that when there were legislative hearings on drug bills, at the state or the national level, members of the medical profession did not receive notice until it was too late for them to testify. When the American Medical Association (AMA) failed to appear before a congressional hearing, Anslinger lied to the committee and told them that the AMA favored strict regulation of marijuana.
In August 1937, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, which provided the first block in erecting a comprehensive scheme for federal regulation of the drug. It classified marijuana as a narcotic and thus gave Anslinger’s FBN still another target to go after. For the next twenty-five years Anslinger spearheaded the federal drive against drugs. Ironically, there is some evidence that in the early 1950s Anslinger secretly supplied morphine to Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Thin-skinned at all times, Anslinger did not handle criticism well and, later in his career, was reprimanded for failing to desist from harassing critics of his policies, especially Indiana University professor Alfred Lindsmith, whose books and articles attacked the war on drugs and Anslinger’s leadership of it.
In 1962, Anslinger retired at the mandatory age of seventy and, for the next two years, served as a member of the American delegation to the United Nations. By then he had become completely blind and suffered from a variety of ailments, including an enlarged prostate and angina. Some thought it ironic—even hypocritical—that in his later years he became a regular user of morphine to control his pain.
MELVIN I. UROFSKY
References and Further Reading