Who was Harry Anslinger ?

Written by Petar Petrov

How did he single-handedly change the course of cannabis history?

When someone denounces cannabis not only for being “a short cut to the insane asylum,” but for being a “deadly, dreadful poison[that] racks and tears not only the body, but the very heart and soul of every human being,” turning “the mildest mannered man [into] a murderer who kills for the love of killing…” you know that something very fishy is going on. That person is either really misinformed, or really, really biased.

And being the founding commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (the precursor to the DEA) for 30 years, Harry Anslinger was anything but misinformed. Something’s rotten in the Federal Bureau of Narcotics indeed.

So, if you’re out of Halloween costume ideas and want something a little more unconventional, something that screams‘hypocritical’ or ‘fraudulent bigot’(and isn’t the popular costume of a certain orange-skinned, blonde toupee-wearing coot), a Harry Anslinger out fit might be right for you.

Rise to Prominence

Anslinger was never short of talent, just short of morals. He was appointed Assistant Commissioner of the Department of Prohibition in 1929 before being appointed the Head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930. At the time, alcohol was Anslinger’s main concern, and during the Prohibition Era, not only did he consider cannabis as unproblematic, but he even declared that “there is no more absurd fallacy” than the idea that cannabis makes people violent.

But when Prohibition ended, so did Anslinger’s main concern—or more precisely: his primary professional function. He found himself in charge of a huge government department without a villain to go after. So, he quickly came up with one – cannabis.

Cannabis – The “Killer Drug

Anslinger’s newly found anti-cannabis philosophy gained momentum, with newspapers running headlines like “Murders Due to ‘Killer Drug’: Marihuana Sweeping the United States.”

Anslinger scoured violent crimes for even the remotest connection with cannabis, giving birth to his famous “Gore Files” series. His most pronounced “jackpot” was the case of Victor Licata, a young Italian who murdered his family with an axe. Anslinger consulted 30 doctors in hopes of blaming the vicious crime on the influence of cannabis, 29 of which denied any such connection. But when it comes to propaganda, it only takes one opinion to turn a finding into fact.


A massive national and world-wide propaganda campaign was unleashed, fueled by insane misrepresentations of information. Think Reefer Madness (it’s free on YouTube to watch).

At its heart was racism against foreigners and people of color, to whom Anslinger assigned the role of Villain in his play. His anti-cannabis campaigns contained shocking, blatantly racist statements. Anslinger’s relentless, sweeping campaigns led to the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, which levied a $100/oz tax to transfer cannabis. One Ben Franklin per ounce…in 1937.

War on Drugs

Anslinger’s legacy continued even after he stepped down, most palpable in President Nixon’s 1971 “War on Drugs.”The ulterior motives behind its inception were later exposed by Nixon’s chief assistant and Watergate conspirator John Ehrlichman:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people … We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”

Though Anslinger’s spirit still haunts the United States’ drug policy—even responsible for the term ‘Marijuana’—cannabis, at least, may finally be escaping the shadow of his past.

About the author

Petar Petrov

Petar is a freelance writer and copywriter, covering culture, art, society, and anything in-between that makes for a nice story. And as it so happens, cannabis is a great element to add to each of those conversations.

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