Biography of Harry J. Anslinger Commissioner of Narcotics Part 2

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.

In his single-minded zeal to rid the land of drugs, Commissioner Anslinger had little patience with those who saw drug abuse as a medical problem. It was, he felt, a police problem. While many doctors, lawyers, and judges sought to treat narcotics addicts--like alcoholics--as victims of a disease, Anslinger insisted that users were "immoral, vicious, social lepers" who must be segregated from society. When in 1959 a joint committee of the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association suggested that it might be helpful to treat addicts on an outpatient basis, allowing them to withdraw gradually from the habit, Anslinger bitterly denounced the proposal. If addicts were to be weaned from drugs instead of locked up and forced to kick their habit cold turkey, said Anslinger scornfully, then society might as well set aside "a building where on the first floor there would be a bar for alcoholics, on the second floor licensed prostitution, with the third floor set aside for sexual deviates, and, crowning them all, on the top floor a drug-dispensing station for addicts."

Among the dangers of narcotics, Anslinger concluded, was their potential as a weapon of war. In 1942 he charged that Japan had been encouraging the use of opium in the lands occupied by the Japanese army in order to make their subjects more docile. During W.W. II he marshaled the forces of several U.S. departments to check this "Japanese opium offensive." Two years before the war erupted in Europe, Anslinger began working with opium alkaloid manufacturers in the U.S. to stockpile the massive medical supplies that would be needed to care for Allied casualties.

Also for the war effort, the commissioner suspended his longstanding campaign against marijuana smoking and actually fostered its use--among captured enemy officers. Collaborating with the Office of Strategic Services, he spiked cigarettes with marijuana and had them distributed among selected POWs, who were then interrogated while under the influence.

With Japan's defeat, Anslinger focused his attack on Communist China. Speaking before the U.N. in 1954, he charged that Peking was trying to demoralize the free world by stimulating drug traffic in Southeast Asia.

In 1962 Anslinger reached the then mandatory retirement age of 70 and so was replaced by Henry L. Giordano. Anslinger retired to Hollidaysburg, Pa., near his native Altoona. Although he continued to serve as U.S. representative to the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs, he was powerless to check the growing drug culture of the late 1960s and 1970s. However, Anslinger was quite explicit about why he disapproved of LSD. "Whatever sublime feelings the person on LSD imagines," Anslinger said, "the fact is that he is out of his head. He can't function in any normal way. He couldn't play chess, make a bed, run a cash register."

While the nation began to adopt a more permissive attitude toward marijuana use, the retired commissioner remained until his death in 1975 an unreconstructed opponent of decriminalization. In the August, 1968, issue of Esquire magazine, he confided to James Sterba his own personal reason for not smoking pot. "Sometimes," he said, "I get in the mood where I'd like to take care of three certain individuals in this country, because of the damage they've done. . . . If I were in the mood at the time that I smoked a marijuana cigarette, I might do some damage to those fellows."

Fortunately for the three would-be targets--all left unnamed--the commissioner never smoked a joint.

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