Biography of Harry J. Anslinger Commissioner of Narcotics Part 1

About the United States Commissioner of Narcostics Harry J. Anslinger, biography and history of the nation's drug czar.


HARRY J. ANSLINGER (1892-1975). U.S. commissioner of narcotics.

What J. Edgar Hoover and communism were to the FBI, Harry J. Anslinger and drugs were to the Treasury Dept.'s Bureau of Narcotics. During his 32-year reign as the bureau's first director, his mission was, as he put it, to "get rid of drugs, pushers, and users. Period." His unrelenting attack on marijuana, which he believed to be as dangerous as any hard drug, led to the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the first federal attempt to stamp out the weed. He brought his expertise to numerous international conferences on drug control and was described by Sir Leonard Lyle of the International Permanent Central Opium Board as "the greatest living authority on the world narcotic drug traffic."

Born on May 20, 1892, in Altoona, Pa., Anslinger worked his way through two years at Pennsylvania State College by playing background piano at a silent-movie theater. In 1917 he took a job with the War Dept. Transferring to the Treasury Dept., he rose in 1929 to assistant commissioner of prohibition, a post that included drug-law enforcement. When corruption in the narcotics section led to the creation of a separate Bureau of Narcotics, President Herbert Hoover appointed Anslinger its first commissioner on Aug. 12, 1930.

From the beginning Commissioner Anslinger relentlessly attacked any and all illicit drugs. He singled out marijuana as especially pernicious because of its appeal to youth. In collaboration with Courtney Ryley Cooper, he wrote for the July, 1937, issue of American Magazine the classic scare piece "Marijuana, Assassin of Youth." In bold type above the authors' by-line the reader was warned, "A weed that grows wild throughout the country is making dope addicts of thousands of young people." The article presented a train of tragedies: a girl jumps out a window in Chicago, a boy axes his family to death in Florida, a youth shoots an elderly bootblack in Los Angeles--all senseless acts committed while under the influence of marijuana, Anslinger claimed. The authors asserted that marijuana induced temporary insanity that "may take the form of a desire for self-destruction or a persecution complex to be satisfied only by the commission of some heinous crime." Marijuana abuse was so rampant in New Orleans, according to the article, that pot smokers accounted for some 29% of the criminals in that city.

In the magazine article and at congressional hearings, Anslinger pressed for passage of a federal law to stamp out marijuana. He was rewarded with the Marijuana Tax Act, which imposed stiff penalties for possession and effectively ended any further medical use of the plant. Cannabis, as the drug was known among doctors, was eliminated from the Pharmacopoeia of the United States of America.

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