Anslinger’s Super Racist Boss: FDR

I know Herer said the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was all Harry Anslinger, but do you really think only Anslinger was behind it? A low-level railroad cop was able to single-handedly marshall the federal government to wage a war on Blacks and Mexicans, getting Congress to go along and the White House what, just didn’t notice?

Knowing the reports of rampant racism in the President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) household and Administration, it is far more plausible that Anslinger was merely the one picked by FDR to do the dirty deed, not the other way around. After all, he appointed Anslinger as the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

Anslinger’s racist statements in testimony to Congress to advance the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 is well-known:

Hearst newspapers nationwide in 1935: ‘Marihuana influences Negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men’s shadows and look at
a white woman twice.

But was President Franklin D. Roosevelt also racist? Consider:

FDR’s Executive Order 9066, which sent 120,000 Japanese expatriates and American citizens of Japanese ancestry to be confined at internment camps, has been charged by critics as being racist.

After the 1936 Berlin Olympics, only the white American athletes were invited to see and meet President Roosevelt. No such invitation was made to the African American athletes such as Jesse Owens, who had won four gold medals. A widely-believed myth about the 1936 games was that Hitler had snubbed Owens, something that never happened. Owens said, “Hitler didn’t snub me–it was [Roosevelt] who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram,” saying that he “wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President.”

According to Bruce Bartlett in his 2008 book, “Wrong on Race,” FDR segregated his African American and white servants by forbidding them from eating meals together at the White House.

When Roosevelt appointed Hugo Black to the Supreme Court he knew that Black had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. In a memo written by Black decades later, Roosevelt did not express any disapproval of Black’s past Klan membership. In private, Roosevelt told Black that “some of his best friends and supporters he had in the state of Georgia were strong members of that organization.”

Roosevelt did not enact or even speak in support anti-lynching legislation that would protect African Americans from violence, due to fears of losing support from Democrats.


“Institutional racism in the housing sector can be seen as early as the 1930s with the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. Banks would determine a neighborhood’s risk for loan default and redline neighborhoods that were at high risk of default. These neighborhoods tended to be African American neighborhoods, whereas the white-middle-class Americans were able to receive housing loans. Over decades, as the white middle-class Americans left the city to move to nicer houses in the suburbs, the predominantly African American neighborhoods were left to degrade. Retail stores also started moving to the suburbs to be closer to the customers.

From the 1930s through the 60’s following the depression FDR’s New Deal FHA enabled the growth of the white middle class by providing loan guarantees to banks which in turn financed white homeownership and enabled white flight, but did not make loans to available to Blacks. As minorities were not able to get financing whites pulled ahead in equity gains, many college students were then in turn financed with the equity in homeownership that was gained by having gotten the earlier government handout, which was not the same accorded to Black and other minority families.

These changes brought on by government-funded programs and projects have led to a significant change in the inner-city markets. Black neighborhoods have been left with fewer food stores, but more liquor stores. The low-income neighborhoods are left with independently owned smaller grocery stores that tend to have higher prices. Poor consumers are left with the option of traveling to middle-income neighborhoods, or spend more for less.

The racial segregation and disparities in wealth between white and Black people are legacies of historical policies. In the Social Security Act of 1935, agricultural workers servants, most of whom were Black, were excluded because key white southerners did not want governmental assistance to change the agrarian system. In the Wagner Act of 1935, “Blacks were blocked by law from challenging the barriers to entry into the newly protected labor unions and securing the right to collective bargaining.” In the National Housing Act of 1939, the property appraisal system tied property value and eligibility for government loans to race. The 1936 Underwriting Manual used by the Federal Housing Administration to guide residential mortgages gave 20% weight to a neighborhood’s protection, for example, zoning ordinances, deed restrictions, high speed traffic arteries, from adverse influences, such as infiltration of inharmonious racial groups. Thus, white-majority neighborhoods received the government’s highest property value ratings, and white people were eligible for government loans. Between 1934 and 1962, less than 2 percent of government-subsidized housing went to non-white people.” All these laws FDR signed into law.

No doubt Anslinger was a rabid racist, but that was the norm for the day. Racism was even written into laws, such as the above. A white middle class railroad detective being a racist was the norm in the day. But FDR seems a “Super Racist,” willing to see it codified into law to oppress Blacks, Jews, Japanese descent, and other minorities. More importantly, criminalizing the drug of choice of the races he did not like would have been a normal use of federal power to FDR.

Now, let’s look at Anslinger:

From 1917 to 1928, Anslinger worked for various military and police organizations. His duties took him all over the world, from Germany to Venezuela to Japan. His focus was on stopping international drug trafficking, and he is widely credited with shaping not only America’s domestic and international drug policies, but for having influence on drug policies 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, perceived as an honest and incorruptible figure, to advance not only in rank but to great political stature.

In 1930, Anslinger was appointed by FDR to the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) as its first commissioner. The FBN, like the Bureau of Prohibition, was under the U.S. 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, his wife’s uncle, and given a budget of $100,000.

Restrictions for cannabis as a drug, often called Indian Hemp in documents before the 1940s, started in local laws in New York already in 1860 and was followed by local laws in many other states and by state laws in the 1910s and 1920s. The federal Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 regulated labeling of patent medicines with Cannabis Indica (Indian Hemp). In 1925 United States supported regulation of Indian hemp, Cannabis for use as a drug, in the International Opium Convention. Recommendations from the International Opium Convention inspired the work with the Uniform State Narcotic Act between 1925 and 1932.

Anslinger had not been active in this process until approximately 1930. Prior to the end of alcohol prohibition, Anslinger had claimed that cannabis was not a problem, did not harm people, and “there is no more absurd fallacy” than the idea it makes people violent. His critics argue he shifted not due to objective evidence but due to the obsolescence of the Department of Prohibition he headed when alcohol prohibition ceased – seeking a new Prohibition. Of 30 leading scientists whose views he sought, 29 said cannabis did no harm. However, Anslinger chose to pursue only the views of the one who did.

Anslinger sought and ultimately received, as head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, an increase of reports about smoking of marijuana in 1936 that continued to spread at an accelerated pace in 1937. Before, smoking of marijuana had been relatively slight and confined to the Southwest, particularly along the Mexican border.

The Bureau first prepared a legislative plan to seek from Congress a new law that would place marijuana and its distribution directly under federal control. Second, Anslinger ran a campaign against marijuana on radio and at major forums. His view was clear, ideological and judgmental: “By the tons it is coming into this country — the deadly, dreadful poison that racks and tears not only the body, but the very heart and soul of every human being who once becomes a slave to it in any of its cruel and devastating forms…. Marihuana is a short cut to the insane asylum. Smoke marihuana cigarettes for a month and what was once your brain will be nothing but a storehouse of horrid specters. Hasheesh makes a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the mildest mannered man who ever laughed at the idea that any habit could ever get him….”

By using the mass media as his forum (receiving much support from yellow journalism publisher William Randolph Hearst), Anslinger propelled the anti-marijuana sentiment from state level to a national movement. He used what he called his “Gore Files” – a collection of quotes from police reports – to graphically depict offenses caused by drug users. They were written in the terse and concise language of a police report. His most infamous story in the The American Magazine concerned Victor Licata who killed his family: “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 crimes. 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.”

The story is one of 200 violent crimes that were documented in Anslinger’s “Gore Files” series. However, it has since been proved that Licata never murdered his family because of cannabis use; the youth actually had a severe mental illness. Researchers have now proved that Anslinger wrongly attributed 198 of the “Gore Files” stories to marijuana usage and the remaining “two cases could not be disproved, because no records existed concerning the crimes.” During the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act hearings, Anslinger rehashed the 1933 Licata killings while giving testimony to congress.

In the 1930s Anslinger’s articles often contained racial themes in his anti-marijuana campaign: “Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with (white) female students, smoking [marijuana] and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy.”

“Two Negros took a girl fourteen years old and kept her for two days under the influence of hemp. Upon recovery she was found to be suffering from syphilis.” When Anslinger was interviewed in 1954 about drug abuse, however, he mentioned nothing about race or sex. In his book The Protectors (1964), Anslinger has a chapter called “Jazz and Junk Don’t Mix” about Black jazz musicians Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, who both died after years of heroin and alcohol abuse: “Jazz entertainers are neither fish nor fowl. They do not get the million-dollar protection Hollywood and Broadway can afford for their stars who have become addicted – and there are many more than will ever be revealed. Perhaps this is because jazz, once considered a decadent kind of music, has only token respectability. Jazz grew up next door to crime, so to speak. Clubs of dubious reputation were, for a long time, the only places where it could be heard. But the times bring changes, and as Billie Holiday was a victim of time and change, so too was Charlie Parker, a man whose music, like Billie’s, is still widely imitated. Most musicians credit Parker among others as spearheading what is called modern jazz.” Anslinger hoped to orchestrate a nationwide dragnet of jazz musicians and kept a file called “Marijuana and Musicians.”

Critics of Anslinger believe the campaign against marijuana had a hidden agenda. For example, the E. I. DuPont De Nemours And Company industrial firm, petrochemical interests, and William Randolph Hearst conspired together to create the highly sensational anti-marijuana campaign to eliminate hemp as an industrial competitor to synthetic materials. However, the DuPont Company and industrial historians have disputed this link between development of nylon and changes in the laws for hemp (marijuana). It was not until 1934, and the fourth year in office, that Anslinger considered marijuana to be a serious threat to American society (Wallace Carothers first synthesized nylon on February 28, 1935). The League of Nations had already implemented restrictions for marijuana in the beginning of the 1930s and restrictions started in many states in the U.S years before Anslinger was appointed. Both president Franklin D. Roosevelt and his attorney general publicly supported this development in 1935. Anslinger was part of a larger movement aimed at alarming the public as part of the government’s broader push to outlaw all drugs.

The La Guardia Committee, promoted in 1939 by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, was the first in-depth study into the effects of smoking marijuana. It systematically contradicted claims made by the U.S. Treasury Department that smoking marijuana resulted in insanity, and determined that ‘“the practice of smoking marihuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word.” Released in 1944, the report infuriated Anslinger, who was campaigning against marijuana, and he condemned it as unscientific.

In 1986, Republican President Ronald Reagan wrote in the New York Times, “The first Federal law-enforcement administrator to recognize the signs of a national criminal syndication and sound the alarm was Harry J. Anslinger, Commissioner of the Bureau of Narcotics in the Treasury.”

Later in his career, Anslinger was scrutinized for insubordination by refusing to desist from an attempt to halt the ABA/AMA Joint Report on Narcotic Addiction, a publication edited by the sociology Professor Alfred R. Lindesmith of Indiana University. Lindesmith wrote, among other works, Opiate Addiction (1947), The Addict and the Law (1965), and a number of articles condemning the criminalization of addiction. Nearly everything Lindesmith did was critical of the War on Drugs, specifically condemning Anslinger’s role. The AMA/ABA controversy is sometimes credited with ending Anslinger’s position of commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

Anslinger was surprised to be re-appointed by President John F. Kennedy in February 1961. The new President had a tendency to invigorate the government with more youthful civil servants, and by 1962, Anslinger was 70 years old, the mandatory age for retirement in his position. In addition, during the previous year he had witnessed his wife Martha’s slow and agonizing death due to heart failure, and had 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 a year ($145,733 when adjusted for inflation in 2014 dollars) position until later that year. He was succeeded by Henry Giordano. Following that, he was the United States Representative to the United Nations Narcotics Commission for two years after which he retired.”

As for the claim that since he was married to Andrew Mellon’s niece, therefore… something. None of the industries the rich banker Mellon was in were being disrupted by hemp: oil, steel, shipbuilding, and construction.

CalNORML founder Dale Gieringer wrote this regarding Herer’s theory on the Hearst/DuPont cabal quashing hemp:

“This fanciful theory was first propounded by Jack Herer in the 1990 and subsequent editions of his book, “The Emperor Wears No Clothes.” I asked Jack what evidence he had to support it, and he couldn’t produce a single piece of documentation. Having extensively researched the origin of the cannabis laws, I can say that there isn’t a shred of evidence for this notion.

According to Herer, William Randolph Hearst also had an interest in suppressing hemp because it competed with his tree-pulp-paper interests. In fact, according to his biographer, WA Swanberg, Hearst suffered from a shortage of pulp-paper newsprint by the late 1930s, and would have had an interest in encouraging cheap hemp alternatives, if they had in fact been available. While Hearst did lead a press crusade against marijuana, his interest was not in hemp, but in ‘dope fiends.’”

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