In the beginning, Henry Joy thought alcohol prohibition was a good idea. One of the founders of the Packard Motor Car Company and something of a Renaissance man, Joy thought that eliminating booze from the American scene would cure a whole range of national ills. For one thing, he felt the increasing complexity of the factory demanded a sober work force. The newly conceived assembly line was no place for drunks. What’s more, the money that working men would save by not buying booze could be used to buy other things—toasters, washing machines, homes, cars—and once free of the sodden drag of alcohol, the economy could surge forward. But more important than the economic benefits would be the social rewards for the poor and downtrodden. Decades of fire-and brimstone from the temperance crusaders had convinced most of America that the focal point of evil was the saloon. Shortly after the Anti-Saloon League was formed in 1893, Henry Joy and his wife Helen came on board with time and money.
When the 18th Amendment—and the Volstead Act that spelled out the details—went into effect in January of 1920, Reverend Billy Sunday said, “The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile and children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent.” Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way. If the great evangelist had lived to see the end of the decade, he would have had to eat every syllable.
Alcohol consumption did drop dramatically, at least in the beginning. And the economy was booming—the prohibitionists took credit for that. On the other hand, crime was skyrocketing and becoming organized. The country was swimming in bootleg liquor and hardly a day went by without a headline about police corruption. Henry Joy, like most temperance activists, had assumed that when the 18th Amendment passed, Americans would just stop drinking. It never even occurred to him that people would ignore the law. Then one day he found out his servants were making top quality wine and beer for everybody in the house except for himself and his wife.
Henry Joy inadvertently wound up with a front row seat for the war on booze. His vast estate fronted on Lake St. Clair north of Detroit. On the opposite shore was Canada, only minutes away by high speed motor launch, and this waterway was destined to become a major midnight conduit for Canadian whiskey. Joy found it hard to get used to the sight of federal agents blasting away at smugglers trying to land on his beach, but he put up with it. Then one day in December of 1926 a carload of agents showed up at his estate and without bothering to identify themselves, ransacked the boat house and seized eleven bottles of beer from the old watchman. When they came back later, the old man didn’t answer fast enough so they broke down the door and roughed him up. Joy was outraged but there was more to come. The next time the lawmen were in the neighborhood they spotted an armed man in a boat just off shore and
shouted for him to stop. The man—a duck hunter—couldn’t hear anything over the sound of his outboard, so he cruised on, oblivious, and the agents blew him away.
“I made a mistake. I was stupidly wrong,” wrote Joy. “America must open its eyes and recognize that human nature cannot be changed by legal enactment.” In a complete about-face he cancelled his membership in the Anti-Saloon League and became a major supporter of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment. This newly minted organization was headed by a blue-chip roster that included the three du Pont brothers, the head of General Motors, and the president of Morgan Guaranty Trust. Like Joy, most of these tycoons had been supporters of prohibition until they were confronted with the reality. Now they were concerned about the future of the Republic and there was plenty to be concerned about.
In the first year of prohibition, crime leaped 24 percent in the nation’s major cities and before the decade was over the criminal justice system would be overwhelmed. The federal caseload tripled and civil cases were brushed aside to make room for the flood of alcohol offenders. Drowning in the flow, judges began offering “bargain days” where a whole courtroom full of suspects would be allowed to plead guilty in return for a small fine. The federal prison system was operating at 170 percent capacity and the cost to the taxpayers was about to increase by an order of magnitude.
Even more alarming to old-money aristocrats like the du Ponts was the dangerous erosion of respect for the criminal justice system. Prohibition enforcement tarred every institution it touched—Coast Guard, Customs, Treasury, Justice—and local cops and sheriffs in cities and counties all over the country. An officer could triple his annual income in a single day just by looking the other way. By 1929, one out of four federal agents had been dismissed for charges ranging from bribery, extortion, conspiracy, and embezzlement, to drinking the evidence and submission of false reports. In Detroit, where the liquor trade was
said to be the second only to the automobile industry, the graft paid to public officials topped $2 million a week and this was at a time when you could get a hamburger for a nickel. In New York the typical speak-easy had to shell out $400 a month between the Prohibition Bureau, the Police Department and the D.A.’s office, and the lowly cop on the beat picked up an extra $40 every time there was a delivery. A reporter for the New York Evening Sun summed up American history in 1930 as “…Columbus… Washington… Lincoln… Volstead… two flights up and ask for Gus…”
The havoc was not limited to institutional damage. The Volstead Act also produced alarming changes in drinking patterns. Beer consumption dropped dramatically but the sale of hard liquor doubled. Here was another law of the smuggling trade at work: you have to put the maximum bang in the smallest possible package. Beer is bulky. Whiskey is compact and easier to conceal. If you’ve ever been to a college football game, you’ve witnessed this phenomenon. Students are normally beer drinkers but since alcohol is prohibited at the stadium, they sneak in a flask and become whiskey drinkers. This distortion of behavior was visited on the Jazz Age with a vengeance. Instead of buying a drink, they bought a bottle and they didn’t get up until there was nothing left but the glass. In the decade before prohibition Americans had been gradually turning away from alcohol—a tribute to the temperance advocates—and now the trend was dramatically reversed. Drinking became fashionable. If you didn’t have a hip flask, you were out of it. And since the speakeasy had no liquor license to lose, there was no need to check I.D. If you could reach the bar, the question was “What’ll it be?” This laissez-faire attitude produced another astounding evolution. Before 1918 the only females hanging out in saloons were hookers and dancers. If the ladies drank at all, they drank at home. Now women were flocking to the speakeasies in such numbers they would give the era one of its enduring images—the flapper. As Heywood Broun complained, the old
saloons may have been sinkholes but at least you didn’t have to fight your way through crowds of schoolgirls to reach the bar.
Confronted with the ongoing failure of law enforcement, the prohibitionists demanded more of it—tougher judges, harsher sentences, more draconian punishment. By 1929 the penalties had been ratcheted up by a factor of ten. You could now get five years and a $10,000 fine for selling one drink. The enforcement budget was tripled, more agents were hired, the Fourth Amendment was practically set aside—and still it came, an unstoppable wellspring of booze flowing from breweries in basements, and breweries that covered acres operating at full tilt with the complete cooperation of local officials, and from three hundred thousand private stills spread all over the country. A man who paddled his canoe the length of the Mississippi in the late 1920s said the scent of fermenting mash was in the wind from the headwaters of Lake Itaska to the dock at New Orleans. An updated verse of the old railroad gandy-dancer’s tune said it all:
My sister sells snow to the snowbirds.
My father makes bootlegger gin,
My mother sells wine from the grapes on our vine
My God! How the money rolls in.
In the end, the rapier-like coup de grace to Prohibition would be administered by a woman. Tall, statuesque, strikingly beautiful, Pauline Morton Sabin came from the same rarified atmosphere as Henry Joy. Her uncle was the Morton of “When It Rains, It Pours” and her father was Secretary of the Navy under Teddy Roosevelt. Like Henry Joy, Pauline Sabin had been an early supporter of Prohibition. “I felt I should approve it because it would help my two sons… I thought a world without liquor would be a beautiful world.” Now she would undo it with a fatal thrust.
A lifelong Republican and a skilled organizer, Mrs. Sabin watched with growing agony as the violence and corruption
spread, but she was most frightened by the impact it was having on young people. The lesson kids were supposed to learn—“crime does not pay”—was an obvious lie. Crime paid very well and everybody knew it. And killers like Capone were becoming romantic heroes. In May of 1929 she assembled a couple of dozen like-minded social divas at the Drake Hotel in Chicago and they announced the formation of the WONPR—Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform. “Many of our members are young mothers—too young to remember the old saloon,” said Sabin. “But they are working for repeal because they don’t want their babies to grow up in the hip-flask, speakeasy atmosphere that has polluted their own youth.” Over the next two years 300,000 women joined the WONPR and before it was over there would be 1.5 million.
This defection was a disaster for the prohibitionists. They had always claimed that women backed the 18th Amendment without reservation. Ella Boole, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, told Congress in 1928, “I represent the women of America!” Now here was Pauline Sabin—elegant, commanding—leading a delegation before the House Judiciary Committee, saying just the opposite. “Mrs. Sabin spoke bluntly,” said the New York Times of February 14, 1930, “and her emerald ring glittered as she waved her hand…” She also spoke with chilling eloquence.
“…women played a large part in the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment. Many were women who had unhappy experiences as a result of drunkenness among those close to them. They are now realizing with heart burning and heart aching that if the spirit is not within, legislation can be of no avail. They thought they could make prohibition as strong as the Constitution, but instead have made the Constitution as weak as prohibition…” Before the Volstead Act, said Mrs. Sabin, her children had no access to alcohol. Now they could get it anywhere.
Applause interrupted her testimony several times—an explosion of relief no doubt, from congressmen who finally saw a
glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Many of these lawmakers had known for years that prohibition was unenforceable, but under the thumb of the Anti-Saloon League, they dared not open their mouths. The League had helped elect many in this chamber, and they were still convinced the League spoke for the woman voter. Mrs. Sabin put the lie to that myth and the legislators began to breath again.
In the campaign of 1928, Herbert Hoover’s ambiguous platform gave hope to both wets and drys, but once in office the new president came down heavily on the side of Prohibition. Partly to placate the offended wets, he named a panel of experts to study the problem under the guidance of former Attorney General George Wickersham. It was clear from the outset that Hoover expected the Wickersham Commission to support the law, and when the report came out in January of 1931, it looked at first glance like a triumph for the drys. On closer reading, however, it turned out only one of the eleven members actually believed Prohibition had a chance. The statements of the other ten ranged from skepticism to outright demand for repeal. More important, the body of the report was loaded with scientific data and expert testimony detailing the devastation—the overwhelming flow of cash, the corruption, the gunplay, the judicial paralysis, the bursting prisons—and the unstoppable, ever-flowing tide of booze. “As an account of what had gone wrong and why, the whole report has not been surpassed,”says historian Sean Dennis Cashman  With these facts on record, the politically correct conclusions at the end of the report made the administration look ridiculous. This ditty from the New York World summed it up.
Prohibition is an awful flop.
We like it.
It can’t stop what it’s meant to stop.
We like it.
It’s left a trail of graft and slime,
It don’t prohibit worth a dime,
It’s filled our land with vice and crime,
Nevertheless, we’re for it.
But the cat was out of the bag. The wild claims of the prohibi-tionists—unquestioned in the past—were now confronted with official facts and figures that left no doubt the “the Noble Experiment” had been a disaster.
The drys had one last ace in the hole. Prohibition wasn’t just a law, it was imbedded in the Constitution. Most authorities thought it would be impossible to reverse the process. No amendment had ever been repealed. It takes two-thirds of both Houses and three-fourths of the States. Senator Morris Sheppard, the wily old Texan who helped install Prohibition, said “There is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a humming-bird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail.” But with the Crash of 1929, the country’s attention had shifted from morality to survival, and when Franklin Roosevelt swept into office in 1932, it was with the active help of former Republicans Pauline Sabin and Henry Joy. Less than a month after the Democratic landslide, the hummingbird took off for Mars.
Back in the closing days of 1919 just before Prohibition became law, the bar at the Yale Club, with uncanny foresight, had laid in a 14-year supply of liquor. On December 5, 1933, when Utah became the 36th State to ratify repeal, the prescient Yalies had good reason to clink their glasses. They had timed it almost to the bottle.
Harry J. Anslinger had given it his all. A muscular, bull-necked, former railroad cop who could handle himself on any terrain,
Anslinger was one of the men who had tried to make Prohibition work. As U.S. Consul to the Bahamas in 1926, he had browbeaten the British into clamping down on the rampant liquor traffic across the Straits of Florida. As head of the Prohibition Unit’s foreign control division, he had forced similar treaties down the throats of the Canadians and Cubans. And he had created a vast intelligence network aimed at stopping liquor at the border—all for nothing. He was determined this wouldn’t happen to him again.
When the ax finally fell on the Prohibition Unit, it missed Anslinger completely. He had already moved on. Three years earlier his bosses at Treasury had reassigned him to the Narcotics Division, a separate compartment within the Prohibition Unit. The Narcotics Division was supposed to be the enforcement muscle behind the Harrison Narcotics Act, but the agency had been awash in corruption almost from the beginning. When the son of Commissioner Levi Nutt turned up on the payroll of New York mobster Arnold Rothstein, it finally pinned the scandal meter. Nutt was relieved of command and Harry Anslinger was given the job of cleaning up the mess. But this time Congress felt the situation called for more than a reshuffling of the deck, and they decided to pull narcotics enforcement out of the tainted Prohibition Unit altogether. With the Porter Act of 1930, they created the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a brand new arm of the Treasury Department. Harry J. Anslinger was given the job of acting Commissioner on July 1, 1930, and everybody but Anslinger thought it was a temporary assignment. In fact it was a seat he would hang onto with an iron grip for the next thirty years, and like his colleague J. Edgar Hoover over at the FBI, he would routinely confound and outmaneuver his enemies through five presidential administrations.
The impact of this appointment would ripple through history for half a century and more because Harry Anslinger was no ordinary bureaucrat. He was a law-and-order evangelist—“a cross between William Jennings Bryan and Reverend Jerry Falwell,”
said biographer John McWilliams—and he brought to the new job a Puritanical conviction that alcohol prohibition could have succeeded. It failed, he maintained, not because it was a bad idea, but because law enforcement wasn’t tough enough. Anslinger himself beat the drum for years trying to get more draconian penalties—not just for sellers but for drinkers as well—and they wouldn’t listen. Now he would get a chance to test his theories in the field of narcotics, and the country would be transformed in the process.
Anslinger’s first problem was to clean up the rampant corruption among the agents he inherited from Levi Nutt, but he was sandbagged almost immediately by a couple of fresh scandals in the New York office. Once again, agents were fronting for dealers and protecting mobsters—this time, “Legs” Diamond. Then came the Democratic Landslide of 1932, and suddenly Harry Anslinger began to look like a temporary employee. At this delicate moment, he almost cut his own throat. In a memo to the field offices, Anslinger warned his men to be on the lookout for an informant he described as “a ginger-colored nigger.” The White House exploded and even the Senator from Anslinger’s home State demanded his resignation. Any other third level bureaucrat would have been on the next train out of Union Station, but somehow Anslinger survived. How was this possible?
There’s no doubt the man could be charming and persuasive. Even his fiercest detractors give him that. And he was macho in the gunslinger style that has always appealed to Washington insiders. But it turns out the secret to his longevity was actually buried in the text of the law that set up the Bureau. Before Anslinger, if you wanted to market narcotic painkillers, you had to take your case to a Cabinet-level tribunal consisting of the Secretary of State, Secretary of Treasury, and the Secretary of Commerce. But when Congress created the Bureau of Narcotics, they eliminated this board and gave the job, whole and entire, to the new Bureau’s Commissioner —Harry J. Anslinger. So if, say, you wanted to manufacture narcotic pharmaceuticals,
you had to check with Harry. It was as if he had been accidentally positioned at the wheel of a gate valve that could direct the flow of money. He and he alone could decide who would gain entry to the narcotics Monopoly game, and by 1936 he had admitted only eight players—Merck, Mallinckrodt, Hoffman LaRoche, New York Quinine, Parke-Davis, Sharpe & Dohme, Eli Lilly, and Squibb—almost all destined to become household names. The arrangement was perfect for Anslinger since it was obviously easier to police a small group of large manufacturers than a large group of small ones. It was also perfect for the insiders in this oligopoly, and their spectacular financial growth reflected it. This corporate cartel became Anslinger’s steadfast ally, and throughout his career, whenever the Commissioner needed help on Capitol Hill, the pharmaceutical industry would come running. When he was pushing legislation, they would testify in favor. When he was under attack, they would move behind the scenes twisting arms. This powerful lobby combined with Anslinger’s natural constituency—the frustrated drys and law-and-order conservatives—ultimately rendered him impregnable.
Contrary to pop history, Harry Anslinger did not start America’s legendary campaign against marijuana. In fact he tried to keep the Bureau out of cannabis enforcement in the beginning because he thought eradication would be impossible. The stuff grows, he said, “like dandelions.” But after the curtain came down on Prohibition, the nation’s moral focus moved on to the next available villian, and the marijuana issue was waiting in the wings. By 1933 several States had already outlawed the Devil Weed and some officials were calling for a national ban. Anslinger realized he might be able use this issue as a weapon—a club to whip the States into line. He needed to get local law enforcement more involved in the battle against narcotics because his tiny force of 250 agents could barely keep track of the major traffickers. For months Anslinger had been
on the road trying to convince the States to adopt some kind of uniform narcotics enforcement, and he was getting nowhere. The State governments were as strapped as Washington. So some time in 1935 he decided to build a little fire, and he suddenly transformed marijuana from a low priority nuisance to an evil “as hellish as heroin.”
Outside of the temperance organizations and a handful of lawmen, most Americans had never heard of marijuana, but along the Mexican border it was a different story. Before the Depression, cheap Mexican labor had given the West its muscle. But with 18 million unemployed gringos in the breadlines, the brown-skinned guest workers were now looked on as thieves. Just as the people of San Francisco began to notice the menace of opium smokers when the Chinese were done building the Union Pacific, border State lawmen now began to notice alarming behavior among the indolent Mexicans. They would smoke this weed and it would make them crazy. Wild, fearless, they would chop people up with axes and not remember a thing. Sometimes it took four men to subdue them.
The District Attorney of New Orleans added the other essential ingredient when he claimed that marijuana was a sexual stimulant. He said it caused addicts to abandon their civilized inhibitions. Once again the specter of superhuman, sex-crazed savages sent a ripple of fear through the South, and once again it proved irresistible to politicians and the press. The Hearst news syndicate had always been fascinated with drug addicts and when his editors discovered the menace of marijuana, Hearst himself fell on it with a vengeance. Led by the flagship New York Journal-American, the “Marihuana-Crazed Madman” became a staple fixture in his fifty newspapers, magazines and radio stations, and very shortly Hearst’s worst fears were realized. Reports began coming in about young people experimenting with this deadly new drug—hardly surprising given the publicity.
At the head of the parade throughout this campaign, the man beating the bass drum was the indefatigable Spanish-American war hero, Captain Richmond Hobson. Now in his late sixties,
Hobson had been completely reinvigorated by the anti-marijuana campaign. And though Harry Anslinger despised the man (a dilettante, said Anslinger, who lived off his wealthy female financial backers) Hobson could still ignite middle America like a prairie fire. Dispatches from the western States to the New York Times headlined: “STATE FINDS MANY CHILDREN ARE ADDICTED TO WEED,” “POISONOUS WEED SOLD FREELY IN POOL HALLS AND BEER GARDENS,” “USE OF MARIJUANA SPREADING IN WEST,” “CHILDREN SAID TO BUY IT.”
Now a very real sense of fear welled up in the heartland. Young people were involved. Harry Anslinger found himself in demand as a speaker before women’s clubs and parent-teacher associations all over the country, and he painted a horrifying picture. “Take all of the good in Dr. Jekyll and the worst in Mr. Hyde—the result is opium. Marihuana may be considered more harmful… It is Mr. Hyde alone.” Within a couple of years, his campaign overwhelmed the State governments and by 1936 most of them had signed off on the uniform narcotics law, which now included cannabis. The argument was compelling. As one Montana lawmaker put it: “When some beet field peon takes a few puffs of this stuff, he thinks he has just been elected president of Mexico so he starts out to execute all his political enemies.”
Anslinger’s campaign may have been just a tool in the beginning, but fueled with this kind of racial tinder, it quickly got out of hand. The Treasury Department was barraged with cries for help from civic leaders: “I wish I could show you what a small marijuana cigarette can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents… ” “…a direct by-product of unrestricted Mexican immigration…” “Mexican peddlers have been caught distributing sample marijuana cigarettes to school children.” Anslinger’s boss, Treasury Secretary Morgenthau, was starting to get pressure from police, mayors, and Western governors to do something about the dreaded plant on a national scale. All of a sudden Anslinger, a victim of his own success, was given the unenviable assignment of controlling the use of an
indiginous weed that was growing wild alongisde gravel roads in all 48 states. But there was no turning back now.
At first, the enforcers assumed cannabis could just be wedged into the existing anti-narcotics regulations, but Treasury Department lawyers warned them not to tinker with the Harrison Act. It was in enough trouble with the Constitution already. What they recommended was a separate treaty altogether. And so in the summer of 1936, Harry Anslinger followed the footsteps of Hamilton Wright to the League of Nations forum in Geneva. He made a valiant pitch for a global ban on marijuana, and got an emphatic thumbs-down from all 26 nations present. They, too, were aware that the stuff grew “like dandelions,” and that any attempt at global eradiction would be Sysyphean. When Anslinger came home empty-handed, the Department lawyers decided to take another look at the tax law. Encouraged by the success of their latest effort, a prohibitive tax on machine guns, they proposed a tax on buyers and sellers of marijuana so onerous the trade would be completely discouraged. Anslinger swallowed his doubts and went up the Hill to try to shove the bill through Congress, and he found such a level of willful ignorance on the subject that it turned out to be a pushover.
The transcript of the 1937 Congressional Hearings on H.R.6385, the Taxation of Marijuana, is a legendary chronicle that was destined to become a source of embarrassment to almost everybody involved. As University of Virginia law professor Charles Whitebread said, “the hearings before the House Ways and Means Committee and the floor debate on the bill are near comic examples of dereliction of legislative responsibility.” What the professor was referring to was this sort of thing on the day of the House vote:
Mr. SNELL: What is the bill?
Mr. RAYBURN: It has something to do with something that is called marihuana. I believe it is a narcotic of some kind.
Mr. VINSON: Marihuana is the same as hashish.
Mr. SNELL: Mr. Speaker, I am not going to object but I think it is wrong to consider legislation of this character at this time of night.
The hearings that led up to this vote were no more enlightening. The principal witness before the House Committee was Commissioner Anslinger, and the evidence he presented consisted of newspaper clippings. As for scientific authority, he quoted a pharmacist from Tunisia named Dr. Bouquet, “the greatest authority on cannabis in the world today.” And he read from his drug crime file, sheets of paper with the word “Crime” at the top, followed by handwritten notes like:
“Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with female students (white) smoking and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result pregnancy.”
He told the Congressmen about two boys in Chicago who murdered a policeman while under the influence of marijuana, and about a 15-year-old who went insane. And he mentioned the one crime that horrified him most, the grisly story of Victor Licata, a twenty-one-year-old boy from Florida who slaughtered his whole family with an ax. “The evidence showed that he had smoked marihuana,.” said Anslinger. He didn’t bother to mention that Victor Licata had been diagnosed as mentally unstable long before he took that hit of marijuana.
In any transcript of a Congressional hearing on drug legislation, you would normally expect to run across some sort of scientific data, but here you find nothing. There was only one expert medical witness on the whole roster and when he finally got a chance to speak, it immediately became clear why Anslinger preferred to get his evidence from newspaper clippings. In his opening statement, Dr. William C. Woodward of the AMA undermined Anslinger’s testimony by pointing out that the
facts and figures in most of these newspaper clippings had originated with the Commissioner himself. Then the doctor started asking embarrassing questions. “We are told that the use of marihuana causes crime. But yet no one has been produced from the Bureau of Prisons to show the number of prisoners who have been found addicted to the marihuana habit.” Woodward, in fact, had checked with the Bureau of Prisons himself, and they told him they had no such evidence. The same with the crisis among young people: “You have been told that school children are great users of marihuana cigarettes. No one has been summoned from the Children’s Bureau to show the nature and extent of the habit among children.” When Woodward himself checked with the Children’s Bureau and the Office of Education, they hadn’t heard anything about it. Finally, Woodward asked, why is there nobody here from the Public Health Service? This question hit a nerve. The Public Health Service experts were the last people Anslinger wanted in the room. A few months earlier he had sent the Assistant Surgeon General a series of questions about marijuana and got this reply: “Cannabis indica does not produce dependence… it probably belongs in the same category as alcohol.”
When Woodward finished his testimony, the Congressmen ate him alive. They accused him of obstruction, evasion, bad faith, and when he finished, they didn’t even bother to thank him. “If you want to advise us on legislation,” said the chairman, “you ought to come here with some constructive proposals rather than criticism, rather than trying to throw obstacles in the way of something that the Federal Government is trying to do.” But this remarkable display of hostility to the sole scientific witness had nothing to do with marijuana. This was strictly a political kick in the teeth. The majority in this room were New Deal Democrats and they had been slugging it out with Woodward and the AMA in one hearing after another on the issue of Social Security and health care. This was their little way of getting even.
The bill reached the floor of the House on a hot afternoon in August in an age before air conditioning. The handful of lawmakers still in the chamber were understandably interested in keeping things moving, and in this case they managed to wrap up the whole debate in a little under two minutes. Mr. Snell, the Republican from upstate New York, had a final question: “Mr. Speaker, does the American Medical Association support this bill?”
Committee member Fred Vinson of Kentucky leaped to his feet, “Their Doctor Wentworth came down here. They support this bill 100 percent.^” Vinson was talking about Dr. Woodward, of course, and this was a flat-out lie—all the more remarkable since Fred Vinson later went on to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. But the hour was late and it was time to move on. In a vote they didn’t bother to record, on a matter of little interest, a handful of Congressmen forwarded a bill that would one day fill the nation’s prisons to the roof beams.
Three years earlier Anslinger had declared the marijuana situation to be a national crisis. Now he declared it to be under control. The lay organizations that were spreading the alarm about cannabis were told to shut up, and the company that created the anti-marijuana propaganda posters was put out of business. There was no longer any need to frighten people. The Bureau of Narcotics was on the case. Anslinger could point to the soaring arrest rates as evidence of his success. And though there was never any credible evidence to back any of his charges, he prevailed simply because he controlled the pulpit. In the same way that he wielded his licensing authority to keep the pharmaceutical industry in line, he used his law-and-order credentials to confer endorsements on friendly legislators like a prince dispensing boons of knighthood. And when he was testifying before a Congressional subcommittee and needed some impressive numbers, he just made them up. Throughout the 1930s, for
example, Anslinger claimed that his sledgehammer approach to enforcement had cut the number of addicts in America from a quarter of a million at the turn of the century down to 60,000 or less. His figures were remarkably precise—9458 addicts in New York, 7,172 in Illinois, and so on—and one reporter wanted to know how he could be so sure since there’s no way to take a census of illegal activity.
“Because within two years every addict will come to the attention of the authorities whether he’s poor or rich,” said Anslinger. “You mention the name of any addict and you’ll find him in our files… We get reports from the local authorities, we check on our inspection records… any excess purchases immediately shows up in our cards and we find out who the addicts are.”
Since the Bureau of Narcotics was the government’s official source on drug statistics, Anslinger could say just about anything he wanted and get away with it. But the gossamer quality of his numbers is suggested by sudden unexplained shifts that suggest manipulation. White addicts, for example, greatly outnumbered nonwhites in the Bureau’s reports for a generation, then suddenly one day the official majority was black. When the Bureau went up to Capitol Hill, the size of the addict problem would often depend on whether Anslinger was looking for a budget increase or a pat on the back.
The first serious assault on Bureau’s information monopoly came from the Mayor of New York. Fiorello LaGuardia had suspected all along that the Commisioner of Narcotics didn’t know what he was talking about, and in 1939 he assembled a blue-ribbon panel under the auspices of the prestigious New York Academy of Medicine—eminent physicians, psychiatrists, pharmacologists, chemists, sociologists and public health officials, with the full support of the NYPD and the entire medical staff of Riker’s Island prison hospital. As biographer John McWilliams observed, “Obviously this was more than a half-hearted attempt to score political points in an election year. Never before or since has such a thorough and extensive study
been conducted on marijuana.” For the next five years they bent to the task, and when the final report came out just after World War II, it blew away virtually every statement Harry Anslinger and the Bureau of Narcotics had made on the subject. To begin with, they found that marijuana smoking did not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the term, nor was it a gateway to harder drugs. There was no evidence whatsoever that it was widespread in school yards or being used by children. And contrary to the belief that marijuana smokers were aggressive and belligerent, the investigators found the opposite. When one of the committee members visited a Harlem smoking den, he said the people seemed relaxed and “free from the anxieties and cares of the realities of life.” And finally, they found no significant relationship between marijuana and juvenile delinquency, and interviews with the police debased the idea that major crimes were inspired by smoking the weed. In summary, “the publicity concerning the catastrophic effects of marijuana in New York City is unfounded.”
The clinical section of the report was equally revealing. Seventy-seven volunteer prisoners at Riker’s Island were subjected to a series of experiments that showed no alterations in personality or behavior and not a speck of evidence to back Anslinger’s claims that marijuana led to insanity or violence.
But anyone who imagined that this stunning indictment might alter the nation’s drug policy had seriously underestimated Harry Anslinger. When details of the report began to leak out, Anslinger went after the authors like a pit bull. A full three years before the report was released, he launched a series of preemptive strikes openly attacking members of the committee as “dangerous” and “strange” people, questioning everything but their parentage. His arguments contained no scientific data, no new evidence, just dark accusations and name calling, but that was good enough. Anslinger understood one thing these other fellows didn’t. If the issue is complex, you don’t have to win the debate, you just have to raise enough dust. His
opponents—scientists, jurists, academics—never grasped the fact that the Commissioner was not playing by the rules. They were on a quest for truth and justice. Harry Anslinger was on a mission from God. If he had to cut a few throats to accomplish the Lord’s work, so be it. He managed to get his adversaries fighting among themselves, and by the time the LaGuardia report was finally released in 1945, the profusion of charges and counter-charges had taken the edge off the issue and the astounding end product was virtually ignored by the press.
The United States behaves best in a crisis. For a nation so vast and diverse there is nothing to unify the citizens like the call to arms. In the face of an appropriately monstrous foe, the races, creeds, and colors who are normally at each other’s throats somehow manage to weld themselves into a single-minded all-powerful engine of war. Peace, therefore, brings a curious sense of loss as people turn back to their private lives. The Second World War, like the First, was followed by a period of disillusionment and suspicion, and when China fell to the Communists in 1949, the U.S. went through a convulsion of fear and recrimination that made the Red Scare of the 1920s look civilized.
Harry Anslinger, once again, was a victim of his own success. The legions of addicted GIs he predicted after the war had failed to materialize, and the country was more interested in demobilization than narcotics. “Our funds are so low,” wrote Anslinger, “that we couldn’t even send an agent across the border from El Paso unless he walks…” He needed some way to reinvigorate his supporters, and the anti-communist firestorm that would come to be known as the McCarthy era meshed perfectly with Anslinger’s own hatred of the Bolsheviks. Anslinger declared that the real menace to America was not communist troops but communist opium. In a precise echo of the post-war propaganda of the 1920s, he warned that the Red conspiracy was out to destroy the West, not with force, but with needles. By the end of the
decade he had succeeded in fixing the idea in the public mind that narcotics and communism were simply two faces of the same monster.
The payoff was immediate. Congress opened the vaults and the Bureau’s budget was doubled over the next five years. But since drug use continued unabated—and was said to be flowering in the black and Puerto Rican ghettos of the North—it was clear that cash alone wouldn’t be enough. Anslinger had been lobbying for tougher laws all along, and now he added to the mix an explosive new charge, this time against the judicial system itself. Here again, there was no study, no survey, no evidence other than newspaper clippings and Anslinger’s gut-level feelings, but he convinced himself—and would shortly convince Congress—that the problem could be laid at the feet of lenient judges.
As it happened, one of Anslinger’s allies, Louisiana Congressman Hale Boggs, was in need of a crusade at that moment. The Louisiana State House was in the grip of Governor Earl Long, brother of “Kingfish” Huey Long, but in 1951 Earl was taking some serious hits in a corruption scandal and he was starting to look vulnerable. Boggs saw that if he could position himself as a law-and-order reformer, he might be able to take the governor’s mansion in the next race. When he discovered there was a narcotics problem in New Orleans, he thought he’d found the key. In April of 1951, he conducted three days of hearings, and after a catalog of horror stories from Commissioner Anslinger about soft laws and liberal judges, Boggs rammed through the most stringent narcotics penalties in history. This time Congress took judicial discretion out of the hands of judges and handed it to the prosecutors by making the sentences mandatory. The minimum now was two years regardless of the circumstances. Second offenders got at least five years without probation, and the three-time losers, not less than twenty.
Unfortunately the new law had no noticeable impact on the narcotics trade, but Harry Anslinger was a policeman first and last, and he had absolutely no faith in any approach other than
law enforcement. His response was always to tighten the screws. Once again, there was a politician ready at hand—this time it was Senator Price Daniel, a Texas Democrat, who was about to make a run for governor. Beginning in 1955, Senator Daniel held hearings all over the country, leading off once again with dramatic testimony from the Commissioner of Narcotics. Anslinger’s warnings about heroin and the Yellow Peril were accepted without question, and the Daniel Committee’s final report stated flatly: “subversion through drug addiction is an established aim of Communist China” Battling evil on this scale clearly demanded extreme measures, and the resulting Narcotics Control Act of 1956 pulled out all the stops. Police powers were expanded, prosecution simplified, the penalties in the Boggs Act were doubled, and the death penalty was thrown in for good measure. And though this law, like its predecessor, had no impact on the street, it was not a total loss. The following year, Price Daniel was elected Governor of Texas.
Inevitably, these unprecedented penalties fell on the heads of small time dealers and users instead of the major traffickers they were intended for, and the drastic punishment raining down on such minor players struck a lot of people as medieval. One of them was a Washington lawyer named Rufus King who happened to be chairman of the American Bar Association’s Criminal Law section. A consummate government insider, the lanky, Lincolnesque attorney was then legislative counsel to the Kefauver Committee on Organized Crime, and while he was writing the committee’s final report, he was sucked into the controversy about the Boggs Act and the idea of mandatory minimum sentences. Some of the Committee staffers, King included, thought mandatory sentencing was well outside the Constitutional fence since it violated the independence of the judiciary. King wondered what could have prompted this kind of legal extremism, and he decided to look into the whole background of anti-narcotics legislation. What he found there left him reeling.
For openers, he was surprised to discover that the Harrison Narcotics Act was a tax law. “Prohibition”—never mentioned in the legislation—was an after-the-fact bureaucratic achievement of the Treasury Department. From the extensive political maneuvering at the time the law was passed, King could see that the whole concept of narcotics enforcement had been on shaky legal ground right from the beginning. The deeper he dug, the more clearly he could see that it still was. Case by case, he waded through the Supreme Court and Appellate decisions—Jin Fuey Moy, Doremus, Webb—and then he came to 285 U.S. 280, U.S. v. Behrman, and his jaw dropped. “It was a trick,” said King. “Dr. Behrman was a flagrant violator who sold four thousand doses of heroin and cocaine to a single addict. But the indictment was drawn as if this were some kind of normal ‘treatment.’” The decision against Dr. Behrman essentially ruled out any prescription to an addict under any circumstances. This set the stage for the “reign of terror,” as King called it, where the few doctors who were still trying to work with addicts were harrassed, destroyed, or thrown in jail.
When King read the next case—Linder v. U.S.—he was practically lifted out of his chair. In 1924, Charles Linder, a respected doctor in Spokane, Washington, had been set up by an addict on the payroll of the Treasury Department. According to Linder, she told him she was having terrible stomach pains and couldn’t reach her regular doctor. She testified that she told him she was an addict. Linder wrote her a prescription for three tablets of cocaine and a tablet of morphine, and the next day Treasury agents stormed into his office and dragged him off to jail. He was convicted and sentenced, he appealed and lost, but he refused to be carried off quietly. When the case reached the Supreme Court in 1925, the justices took one look and tossed out the doctor’s conviction in a unanimous vote:
The enactment under consideration levies a tax… It says nothing of “addicts” and does not undertake to prescribe methods for their medical treatment. They are diseased and
proper subjects for such treatment, and we cannot possibly conclude that a physician acted improperly or unwisely… solely because he has dispensed to one of them… four small tablets of morphine or cocaine for relief of conditions incident to addiction.
King was astounded. There it was in black and white—a unanimous decision from the High Court pulling the rug out from under the Treasury Department’s whole scheme of enforcement. And to make sure there was no doubt where they stood, the judges fired a parting shot:
“…if the Act had such scope it would certainly encounter grave constitutional difficulties.”
As he read this, King realized that this unequivocal reversal of the Behrman doctrine had made no difference whatsoever to the Treasury Department. The Narcotics Division had simply ignored the Linder decision and continued to enforce the regulations after 1925 as if none of this had ever happened. And apparently nobody questioned it because by this time the medical profession was so terrified they didn’t want to have anything to do with addicts.
King was incredulous. Here were revenue agents invading hospitals and waiting rooms, bulldozing through the medical profession, issuing orders about the treatment and care of patients, and nobody said a word. He was outraged, and as an official of the American Bar Association, he was in a position to do something about it. As he saw it, the problem was that the legal profession—his profession—had not given the doctors enough protection when these battles were being waged in the 1920s and ‘30s. King decided to try to get the doctors and lawyers together and see if they could get this mess straightened out. First he got the ABA to adopt a resolution calling for a review of the federal drug program. Then he went to the American Medical
Association with the same pitch and they signed on. Their mutual creation was called “The Joint Committee On Narcotic Drugs of the ABA-AMA,” and it consisted of a blue-ribbon group from each organization with Rufus King as Chairman. In the fall of 1956 they commissioned a survey of all the medical and legal data so they could see what new research would be needed.
One thing King was curious about was other countries. How was Europe dealing with the problem? The following spring he headed for the Continent and what he found there surprised him almost as much as the Harrison Act. “I was representing the ABA, so I was able to see top officials in England, Belgium, Holland, France, Italy, and the Scandinavian countries. When I asked about the drug problem, they’d say ‘what problem?’ I found out that this whole thing was made in America.”
But like so many others before him, Rufus King made the mistake of misjudging Harry Anslinger. In the beginning he had invited Anslinger to participate. Anslinger declined, but he asked to be kept informed as the work progressed. Unfortunately, King didn’t know about Anslinger’s dealings with the LaGuardia Committee in 1945, so he agreed. When the preliminary research was done, the Joint Committee put together an interim report and the contents were potentially explosive. They printed a limited number of copies for distribution within the ABA and AMA, but Harry Anslinger had already set up an ambush. To the Committee’s dismay, the Treasury Department published a document that appeared to be a virtual doppelgänger of their report—same blue cover, same typeface, even the same title, but with two added words: “Comments On NARCOTIC DRUGS — INTERIM REPORT OF THE JOINT COMMITTEE…” And where King and his colleagues had printed a few thousand copies, the Bureau of Narcotics flooded the country with its double.
The arguments—and the insults—were a replay of Anslinger’s attack on the LaGuardia Committee: “When one examines the composition of the Joint Committee of the American Bar
Association and the American Medical Association, one finds that the members are, almost without exception, individuals who have identified themselves with one panacea…and for all practical purposes, their conclusions preceded the formation of the Committee.” Anslinger’s blast was followed by a collection of critiques from several old friends—Texas Governor Price Daniel, Hale Boggs of Louisiana—a judge, several lawmen, doctors, and a narcotics expert from the Los Angeles College of Medical Evangelists. “Has the Joint Committee given consideration to the ash heaps that lay in the cities of Harbin, Mukden, and Tientsin, during the Japanese invasion of China, bearing mute evidence of the toll of drug addiction?” “Marijuana is a lethal weapon, a killer weed… the worst of all narcotics—far worse than the use of morphine or cocaine.” “The Interim report is… utterly confusing and bereft of basic principles of logic…” Ansliger and his colleagues made it clear that the misguided fools from the AMA and ABA were playing directly into the hands of the nation’s communist enemies.
Taken by completely surprise, King was unprepared for the next blow and it proved fatal. The Joint Committee was being funded by a private foundation, and one by one, the trustees were approached by people from the Treasury Department and told that they were sponsoring a “controversial” study. The Treasury Department, of course, held life-and-death power over the fund’s tax exempt status, and according to King the trustees promptly folded. Once again, the Commissioner had pulverized his critics before they even got to the starting gate.
Rufus King, however, proved to have more staying power than Anslinger expected. Over the next three years, King forced him into a series of public confrontations, giving him blow for blow in print and on the radio. One day in 1961 shortly after Jack Kennedy’s inauguration, King had a visitor. “Dr. Peter Bing came to my office with the aura of the JFK White House. He was Science Advisor Jerome Weisner’s assistant. He said, ‘Fill me in on Anslinger.’ I gave him the tape of a debate that was broadcast on
NBC Monitor Radio. He told me later that JFK sat on the corner of his desk in the Oval Office and listened to that tape and he heard Anslinger ranting and raving, and he and Bobby made up their minds he had to go.”
Whether the Commissioner retired or was pushed, he stepped down a few months later after nearly half a century in the service of his country. It was a much different country from the one he had gone to work for in 1918, and some considerable measure of that change was due to the efforts of Harry J. Anslinger.
 Andrew Sinclair, Prohibition: The Era of Excess, Little, Brown & Co., N.Y., 1962, p248.
 David E. Kyvig, Repealing National Prohibition, U. of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1979, p74.
 Charles Hanson Towne, The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, (N.Y., Macmillan, 1923) p-61, quoted by Mark Thornton, Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 157, July, 1991, (Washington, Cato Institute) p9
 Sinclair, Prohibition, p211, 212.
 John C. McWilliams, The Protectors: Harry J. Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 1930-1962, U. of Delaware Press, Newark, 1990, p34
 Sinclair, Prohibition, p198
 Sinclair, Prohibition, p233
 Harry Philips, a reporter for the New York Evening Sun, quoted by Sean Dennis Cashman, Prohibition: The Lie of the Land, (N.Y., McMillan, 1981) p18.
 Clark Warburton, The Economic Results of Prohibition, N.Y., Columbia Univ. Press, 1932; quoted by Mark Thornton, Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 157, July, 1991, Cato Institute, Washington, p5.
 Sinclair, 234
 Kyvig, Repealing National Prohibition, 32
 Sinclair, 208
 Sean Dennis Cashman, Prohibition: The Lie of the Land, McMillan, N.Y. ‘81, p212
 Kyvig, Repealing National Prohibition, 119-23.
 New York Times, Feb. 14, 1930, 18:4
 Cashman, Prohibition: The Lie of the Land, p209
 Franklin P. Adams, New York World, quoted in Sinclair, Prohibition, Era of Excess, 366.
 Speech in Denver, Colorado, June 25, 1923, quoted in Kyvig, Repealing National Prohibition, 2.
 Sean Dennis Cashman, Prohibition: The Lie of the Land, McMillan, N.Y. ‘81, p28
 McWilliams, The Protectors, p41
 Circular Letter No. 324 from H.J. Anslinger, 4 December 1934, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, box 19, file OF 21-X, quoted in McWilliams, The Protectors, p84.
 H.R.11143, Sec. 3a, March 26, 1930, 71st Cong. 2d Sess., and McWilliams, The Protectors, p46.
 McWilliams, The Protectors, p86
 Musto, The American Disease, p222.
 McWilliams, The Protectors, p46
 McWilliams, The Protectors, p56, 57
 McWilliams, The Protectors, p48
 Brecher, Licit and Illicit Drugs,414; McWilliams, The Protectors, p36, 37
 Interview with David Musto, 14 Sept. 1995.
 New York Times, 16 Sep. 1934, 14 April 1935.
 McWilliams, The Protectors, p51
 Charles H. Whitebread, II, The History of Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the U.S., Speech to the California Judges Association, 1995 annual conference.
 Floyd K. Baskette to FBN, 4 Sept. 1936, quoted in Musto, The American Disease, p223.
 New York Times, 15 Sep. 1935, 4;9
 Musto, The American Disease, p223,5.
 Charles H. Whitebread, II & Richard J. Bonnie, An Inquiry Into the Legal History of American Marijuana Prohibition, Virginia Law Review, vol 56;6, Oct 1970, Ch 5;B.
 McWilliams, The Protectors, p53
 McWilliams, The Protectors, p59
 Dr. Walter Treadway, head of the Mental Hygiene Division, quoted in Musto, The American Disease, p225.
 Taxation of Marihuana, U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Ways and Means, Hearings, 4 May 1937, p102-103, and Musto, The American Disease, p228.
 Charles H. Whitebread, II, The History of Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the U.S., Speech to the California Judges Association, 1995 annual conference, p10.
 Musto, The American Disease, p228
 NBC Monitor Radio, July, 1959
 McWilliams, The Protectors, p58
 King, The Drug Hang-Up, p108
 Sociological, Medical, Psychological and Pharmacological Studies by the Mayor’s Committee on Marijuana (The LaGuardia Report), reprinted in The Marijuana Papers, by David Soloman, Signet, N.Y., ‘68, p297,307.
 McWilliams, The Protectors, p104
 McWilliams, The Protectors, p97
 McWilliams, The Protectors, p98
 McWilliams, The Protectors, p107
 Musto, The American Disease, p230
 Alfred R. Lindesmith, The Addict and the Law, (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1965) p26
 Public Law No. 255, 82nd Cong., approved 2 Nov 51; McWilliams, p108
 The Illicit Narcotics Traffic (Senate Rept. no. 1440, 84th Cong., 2nd Sess., 1956) quoted in Musto, The American Disease, n6 p359]
 Rufus King, The Drug Hang-Up: America’s Fifty-Year Folly (2nd edit., Charles C. Thomas, Springfield IL, 1972) p41-43
 Linder v. U.S., 286 U.S. 5, 13 April 1925
 Rufus King, The Drug Hang-Up, p163
 Rufus King: interview 4 May 1996
 Comments on Narcotic Drugs; Interim Report of the Joint Committee of the ABA-AMA on Narcotic Drugs; by the Advisory Committee to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (U.S. Treasury Dept., Bureau of Narcotics, 1958) introduction.
 Rufus King, The Drug Hang-Up, p165-175
 Rufus King, The Drug Hang-Up, p170: “Directly and indirectly Russell Sage Trustees were approched from the Treasury Department… and given to understand that they were sponsoring a ‘controversial’ study, that the ABA and AMA spokesmen were irresponsible if nothing worse, and that it would be discreet to drop the project.”
 NBC Monitor Radio, July, 1959
 Rufus King: interview 4 May 1996