Harry J Anslinger

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Harry J. Anslinger is commonly known for his extreme campaign against Cannabis.

Harry J. Anslinger (May 20, 1892November 14, 1975) is widely considered to be the first United States "drug czar". He served as the Assistant Prohibition Commissioner in the Bureau of Prohibition, before being appointed as the first Commissioner of the Treasury Department's Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) on August 12, 1930. He served an unprecedented 32 years in his role (rivaled only by J. Edgar Hoover), serving until 1962. He then served two years as US Representative to the United Nations Narcotics Commission.

Currently, many firmly oppose Anslinger's legacy against marijuana, fueling decades of misinformation about the drug. While little is known about his private life or personal views, there are examples in Anslinger's writings and behavior that justify today's intense abhorrence of his character. Some contend that Harry J. Anslinger was really just a representative puppet for a thriving political belief. In other words, although it would appear that Anslinger was a conservative who truly believed marijuana to be a threat to the future of American civilization, his biographer maintained that he was an astute government bureaucrat who viewed the marijuana issue as a means for elevating himself to national prominence. The responsibilities once held by Harry J. Anslinger are now largely under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy.

For his role in setting the trajectory of U.S. federal drug policy, he receives hardly any acknowledgement from the current Drug Enforcement Administration website, nor is he mentioned on the site's "Wall of Honor". Neither is there any mention of Anslinger at the Office of National Drug Control Policy website. Anslinger died at the age of 83 of heart failure in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania.

Early Life, Marriage

Harry Jacob's father, Robert J. Anslinger, born in Bern, Switzerland was trained and worked in that country as a barber. Harry's mother, formerly Rosa Christiana Fladt, was born in Baden, Germany. In 1881, Robert and Christiana arrived on Ellis Island. Robert worked as a barber for two years in New York, eventually settling his family in Altoona, Pennsylvania. In 1892, Robert took a job with the Pennsylvania Railroad, and on May 20 of the same year Harry Jacob Anslinger was born—the eighth of Robert and Christiana's nine children.

Anslinger claimed that he witnessed an experience at the age of 12 that impacted his life's direction: He hears the screams of a Morphine addict that are only silenced by a boy his age returning from a pharmacist to supply the addict with more Morphine. Apparently he is appalled that the drug is so powerful and that children have ready access to such drugs.

Though he did not receive a high school diploma, Harry J. Anslinger enrolled at Altoona Business College in 1909, at the age of 17. Sometime thereafter he became employed, like his father, by the Pennsylvania Railroad. At age 21 (1913), he requested and was granted a furlough so he could enroll at Pennsylvania State College where he entered a two-year associate degree program consisting of engineering and business management courses.

He married Martha Denniston (Sept 1886 - Oct 10, 1961) in 1917 at the age of 25, according to the 1930 Census. That year, at age 38, he was renting an apartment at 16th & R Street in Washington, DC for $90 per month, where he lived with his wife Martha and son Joseph L. Anslinger (May 24, 1911 - Nov 1982), who were 44 and 18, respectively. Martha Denniston was allegedly closely related to Andrew W. Mellon, the Secretary of the US Treasury who would appoint Anslinger to his 32 year post as Commissioner of the FBN (however at this time that family connection is yet to be confirmed). In any case, by 1930 he was well-qualified for the position.

Rise to Prominence

Anslinger gained notoriety early in his career. At the age of 23 (1915), while working as an investigator for the Pennsylvania Railroad, he performed a detailed investigation that found the claim of a widower in a railroad accident, fraudulent. He saved the company $50,000 ($921,126 in 2005 dollars) and was promoted to captain of railroad police.

From 1917 to 1928, Anslinger worked for various military and police organizations. His tour of duty took him all over the world, from Germany to Venezuela to Japan. His focus was on stopping international narco-trafficking trade, and he is widely credited for shaping not only America's domestic and international drug policies, but for having influence on drug polices of other nations, particularly those that had not debated the issues internally.

By 1929, Anslinger returned from his international tour to work as an assistant Commissioner in the United States Bureau of Prohibition. Around this time, corruption and scandal gripped Prohibition and Narcotics agencies. The ensuing shake-ups and re-organizations set the stage for Anslinger, known as an honest and incorruptible figure, to advance not only in rank but to great political stature.

In 1930, Anslinger was appointed to the newly-created FBN (Federal Bureau of Narcotics) as its first Commissioner. The FBN, like the Bureau of Prohibition, was under the auspices of the US Treasury Department. At that time the trade of alcohol and drugs was considered a loss of revenue because as illegal substances they could not be taxed. Anslinger was appointed by Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew W. Mellon and given a budget of $100,000 ($1,080,470 in 2005 dollars).

The Campaign Against Marijuana

During the 1920s, an emerging movement of legislators, yellow journalists, and concerned citizens started pressing Washington for federal legislation against marijuana. Back then, the drug was even more misunderstood than it is today. A publication in the Montana Standard, on January 27, 1929, records progress on a bill in that state to amend the general narcotic law:

"There was fun in the House Health Committee during the week when the Marihuana bill came up for consideration. Marijuana is Mexican opium, a plant used by Mexicans and cultivated for sale by Indians. 'When some beet field peon takes a few rares of this stuff,' explained Dr. Fred Fulsher of Mineral County, 'he thinks he has just been elected president of Mexico so he starts to execute all his political enemies...' Everybody laughed and the bill was recommended for passage." (1)

Southern states were also pressing for a federal law against marijuana to persecute Mexicans that saturated the workforce with cheap labor during The Depression. The demands of this growing viewpoint were eventually adopted by Anslinger.

Secretary Mellon, Anslinger's appointer and boss for two years, through his Mellon Financial Corporation was a prime backer of the DuPont petrochemical company, to which the "New Billion-Dollar Crop" of hemp (Popular Mechanics, publication date: February, 1938) presented a serious competitive threat. There is some belief that Anslinger, DuPont petrochemical interests and William Randolph Hearst together created the highly sensational anti-marijuana campaign to eliminate hemp as an industrial competitor. Indeed, Anslinger did not himself consider Marijuana a serious threat to American society until in the fourth year of his tenure (1934), at which point an anti-Marijuana campaign aimed at alarming the public abruptly became his primary focus.

By using the mass media as his forum (receiving much support from William Randolph Hearst), Anslinger propelled the anti-marijuana sentiment from the state level to a national movement. Writing for American Magazine, the best examples were contained in his "Gore File", a collection of police-blotter-type narratives of heinous cases, most with flimsy substantiation, linking graphically depicted offenses with the drug:

"An entire family was murdered by a youthful addict in Florida. When officers arrived at the home, they found the youth staggering about in a human slaughterhouse. With an axe he had killed his father, mother, two brothers, and a sister. He seemed to be in a daze… He had no recollection of having committed the multiple crime. The officers knew him ordinarily as a sane, rather quiet young man; now he was pitifully crazed. They sought the reason. The boy said that he had been in the habit of smoking something which youthful friends called “muggles,” a childish name for marijuana."

Most commonly this campaign also focused intensely on popular racist themes of the time:

"Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with female students (white), smoking [marijuana] and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result pregnancy"; or "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."

Anslinger's successful crusade from that time resulted in the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act on August 2, 1937. The Act provided the first framework for federal regulation, propelling Anslinger to powerful political distinction, and classifying marijuana as a narcotic.

Claims are commonly made that Anslinger went to great lengths to ensure that news of meetings regarding the Marijuana Tax Act were not circulated to any group that might counter the proposed legislation. For example, the American Medical Association (AMA), which would have likely argued in favor of the drug's medicinal function, was notified only two days before the hearing. Their representative, Dr. William Woodward, denounced the hearings as "being rooted in tabloid sensationalism," and demanded an explanation for the secrecy involved. Anslinger ignored Woodward's objections, and then claimed to Congress the AMA agreed the bill should be passed. As early as 1954, Anslinger spoke out in favor of the consolidation of anti-drug treaties into a Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

Despite his public outcry against narcotics, Anslinger may have been a drug connection to Senator Joseph McCarthy. In his 1961 memoir "The Murderers," Anslinger admitted to regularly supplying morphine to "one of the most influential members of the Congress of the United States." Although Anslinger's recounting is melodramatic at best, the story strongly suggests McCarthy, a theory supported by Anslinger's biographer John C. McWilliams in "The Protectors."

Later Years

Later in his career, Anslinger was scrutinized for insubordination by refusing to desist from an attempt to halt the production of publications by Professor Alfred Lindsmith of Indiana University. Lindsmith wrote, among other works, The Addict and the Law (Washington Post, 1961), a book critical of the War on Drugs, specifically implicating Anslinger’s role. This controversy is sometimes credited in ending Anslinger's position of Commissioner of the Treasury Department's Bureau of Narcotics.

In fact, Anslinger was surprised to be re-appointed by President John F. Kennedy in February of 1961, since the tendency of the new President was to invigorate the government with more youthful civil servants. In any case, by 1962 Anslinger was 70 years old—the mandatory age for retirement in his position. In addition, in the previous year he had witnessed the slow and agonizing death of his wife Martha, to heart failure, and is said to have lost some of his drive and ambition. He submitted his resignation to President Kennedy on his 70th birthday, May 20, 1962. Since Kennedy did not have a successor, Anslinger stayed in his $18,500 ($114,241 in 2005 dollars) position until later that year. He was succeeded by Henry Giordano. Following that, for two years he was the United States Representative to the United Nations Narcotics Commission, after which he retired.

By 1973, Anslinger was completely blind, had a debilitatingly enlarged prostate gland and suffered from angina. It is ironic, and some would say even hypocritical, that for his aggressive stance against addictive painkilling drugs, he himself was taking Morphine to alleviate his pain. At 1pm on November 14, 1975, Anslinger died of heart failure at Hollidaysburg Mercy Hospital, Pennsylvania. He was 83.

Anslinger was survived by his son Joseph L. Anslinger and a sister. According to John McWilliams' 1990 book The Protectors, Anslinger's daughter-in-law Bea at that time still lived in Anslinger's home in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania.

Career Timeline, Recognition


  • 1913-1915 : Student, Pennsylvania State University, State College PA
  • 1917-1918 : Member, Efficiency Board, Ordinance Division, War Department
  • 1918-1921 : Attached to American Legation, The Hague
  • 1921-1923 : Vice-Consul, Hamburg, Germany
  • 1923-1925 : Consul, La Guaira, Venezuela
  • 1926 : Consul, Venezuela
  • 1926 : Delegate of US to Conference on Suppression of Smuggling, London
  • 1926-1929 : Chief Division of Foreign Control, US Treasury Department
  • 1927 : Delegate of US to Conference on Suppression of Smuggling, Paris
  • 1928 : International Congress against Alcoholism, Antwerp, Belgium
  • 1928 : Conference to Revise Treat with US, Ottawa, Canada
  • 1929-1930 : Assistant Commissioner of Prohibition
  • 1930 : LL.B., Washington College of Law
  •  ? : LL.D., University of Maryland
  • 1930-1962 : Commissioner of Federal Bureau of Narcotics
  • 1931 : Conference of Limitation of Manufacture of Narcotic Drugs
  • 1932-34, 1936-39 : Co-Observer of US at Leage of Nations Opium Advisory Commission
  • 1936 : US delegation International Conference for Suppression of Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs, League of Nations, Geneva
  • 1952 : US representative commission on Narcotic Drugs of UN Recipient Pennsylvnia Ambassador, Proctor Gold Medal Awards
  • 1958 : One of ten outstanding career men, Federal Government, National Civil Service League
  • 1959 : Alumni Recognition Award, American University
  • 1959 : Distinguished Alumnus award, Pennsylvania State University
  • 1962-1963 : US Representative to United Nations Narcotics Commission
  • 1964: Retired
  • Alexander Hamilton Medal
  • Remington Medal
  • Presidential Citation
  • Member, Commission Drug Addiction NRC
  • Honorable Member, Terre Haute Academy of Medicine
  • Associate Member, International Police Chief Association
  • Member, Advisory Committee, International Cooperation Common Law, American Bar Association
  • Life Member, Pennsylvania and Blair County Pharm. Association
  • Diplomatic and Consular Officers Reg. (board of governors)
  • Sigma Nu Phi


Note (1): Larry Sloman, Reefer Madness: A History of Marijuana in America (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1979), pp 30-31

  • United States Census, Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1930
  • The Traffic in Narcotics: An interview with the Hon. Harry J. Anslinger United States Commissioner of Narcotics, Jan. 1, 1954
  • Obituaries, New York Times, November 18, 1975
  • Who Was Who in America with World Notables (ISBN 0-8379-0207-X), Vol VI 1974-1976, by Marquis Who's Who, 1976
  • The Protectors: Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (1930-1962) (ISBN 0874133521), by John C. McWilliams, University of Delaware Press, August 1, 1990
  • The War on Drugs II (ISBN 1559340169), by J.A. Inciardi, California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1992
  • Cannabis: A History (ISBN 0-312-42494-9), by Martin Booth, Picador USA, June 2005

See also

External links

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