The war on drugs is a slogan used to refer to an administration-led initiative that seeks to stop unlawful drug use, distribution and trade by significantly increasing prison sentences for both drug dealers and users. Some people believe it began in June 1971 when U.S. President. Richard Nixon declared drug abuse to be “public enemy number one” and increased federal funding for drug-control agencies and drug-treatment efforts. Others claim it began after murdering the rookie police officer Edward Byrne in Queens, New York in 1988. Over the years, people have had mixed reactions to the campaign, ranging from full-on support to claims that it has racist and political objectives.
The roots of the seemingly eternal War on Drugs lead to one man: Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Beginning in 1930s, when America’s attitudes on opioids, cocaine, and marijuana were less hateful, Anslinger argued for total drug prohibition and harsh punishment for offenders.
Harry Anslinger was a bigoted hate monger born in Altoona, Pennsylvania in 1892. He ruled as King over the Federal Narcotics Bureau for more than three decades and shaped the United States’ drug policy for years to come.
Anslinger rose through the ranks by looking into wrongful death claims. He successfully handled fraud cases while working as an investigator for the Pennsylvania Railroad. This attitude proved useful when he pivoted to Prohibition enforcement. In the early 1920s, he worked for the government, chasing rumrunners in the Bahamas. He was appointed to run the newly coined Federal Bureau of Narcotics by President Hoover. An astute judge of Washington’s ways, he quickly aligned himself with influential politicians, Washington insiders, and the pharmaceutical industry. He pledged to wipe out all drugs, everywhere and within thirty years, he succeeded in turning his department into the headquarters for a global war that would continue for decades. Targeting minorities, especially Black Americans, with drug charges and harassment was his way of justifying the budget for the newly formed bureau.
He was so racist that his Senator Joseph Guffey asked him to resign and this was before 1940 if you can imagine that. During this time, Anslinger carried out drug laws and with unreasonably long prison sentences that would result in America’s prison-industrial complex. Anslinger destroyed millions of lives. But Anslinger’s war on drugs was a direct attack on Blacks, Hispanics and anyone who used drugs. But he needed a little help to create this over three decades and with the help of racist political leaders his vision would come true.
Anslinger often wrote to his agents: “Please prepare all cases in your jurisdiction involving musicians in violation of the marijuana laws. We will have a great national round-up arrest of all such people on a single day. I will let you know what day.” Then he would offer this infamous advice to the men who performed the drug raids “Shoot first.” Anslinger assured members of Congress that his offensive would effect not “the good musicians, but the jazz type.” His tries to have the jazz musicians Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and other famed jazz players put in prison always backfired. That posed a problem because he couldn’t find anyone willing to snitch. When musicians would go to jail, they would chip in and bail him out.
Anslinger realized that he was wasting his time taking on the close-knit jazz community. Hence, he scaled down his focus until it landed like a laser on a single target. —Conceivably the greatest female jazz singer there ever was – Eleanora Fagan. You may perhaps know her by her stage name Billie Holiday.
When Anslinger found out Holiday was a heroin user, the war on drugs intensified. She walked on stage in 1939 in Midtown Manhattan and sang a song about the bodies of blacks swinging from trees in the South called Strange Fruit for the first time. The song was so poignant for Holiday that she laid down some rules when she sang it at her gigs: She would close the evening with the song. Waiters would stop service when she began; and the room would be in total darkness except for a spotlight on her face. There were no encores. When she finished that evening, she received a warning from the head of the newly formed federal bureau of narcotics named Harry Anslinger. The warning was to stop singing that song.
When Anslinger told her to stop singing the song, Holiday brushed him off because she knew she had the freedom of expression and wouldn’t bow to Anslinger or the U.S. Government. Anslinger made it a point to go after her. He despised employing African-Americans, so he had no choice but to hire one. So, he hired a flunky; Jimmy Fletcher, who was Black, to go after her because he knew that a white agent couldn’t go into any nightclub in Harlem.
She was so hot that Fletcher fell for her. They finally arrested her and like me, her indictment read Billy Holiday vs The United States of America. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison. During that time she and doesn’t sing a word. Upon release, she was stripped of her cabaret card which she needed to perform in any big city. Her close friends knew it crushed her and it did. She began using heroin and alcohol again. She collapsed in NYC and taken to the Knickerbocker Hospital but rejected because she was a drug addict. New York City’s Metropolitan Hospital accepted her. She knew Anslinger would find her and strongly felt that he or his men would kill her in the hospital.
Anslinger sent narcotics agents to her hospital bed. They claimed to find fewer than one-eighth of an ounce of heroin in a tinfoil envelope. They claimed it was hanging on a nail on the wall, six feet from the bottom of her bed—a spot Billie was incapable of reaching. They called on a grand jury to indict her, telling her that unless she snitched on her dealer, they would take her straight to prison. They seized her comic books, radio, record player, flowers, chocolates and magazines, handcuffed her to the bed and stationed two police officers at the door. They had orders to forbid any visitors from coming in without a written permit. No friends could visit her. Her friend Maely Dufty screamed at them that it was against the law to arrest somebody who was on the critical list. They solved that problem quick by having her removed from the critical list.
Holiday told her friend Maely Dufty “they are going to kill me in there.” The hospital diagnosed her with advanced liver cancer. She started having withdrawal symptoms since she had no access to heroin at the hospital. Maley insisted the hospital give her some methadone. They did and she started to recover. Within days, Anslinger had his men arrest her on her hospital bed. They handcuffed her to her bed, refused to allow any friends see her and immediately cut off the methadone and the next day she died.
From the beginning, Anslinger conflated drug use, race, and music. “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” he quoted. “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
United States citizens understand the folly of the war on drugs. The media can no longer hide its made lives for drug addicts worse, while showing blatant racist persecution of African-American’s and Latinos.
Anslinger painted himself in history as a racist. He promoted and enforced severe laws against marijuana once he realized that it was the drug of choice by blacks.
Anslinger labeled marijuana as “more dangerous than heroin or cocaine.” He claimed the plant had the capacity to “lead to pacifism and communist brainwashing.”
In the late 1940s, Anslinger launched an attack on judges, claiming the drug problem stemmed from gentle sentences imposed on drug offenders. Anslinger minions in Congress ran with it and created the Boggs Act. President Truman signed it on November 2, 1951, and amended by the Narcotics Control Act, signed by President Eisenhower on July 18, 1956. These acts launched severe compulsory minimum punishments following conviction. Offenders would receive two to ten years in prison for repeated convictions. Probation and parole were nonexistent. A jury could sentence an adult to death for selling heroin to a minor.
The ’60s saw a resurgence of drug use as the “hippie” movement, driven on by Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles and Timothy Leary.
Nixon labeled drug abuse as the “public enemy number one” to the United States and started the official War on Drugs.
As time went on, it became clear that Nixon’s motivations behind the War on Drugs weren’t too distinct from Harry J. Anslinger’s in the ’30s. John Ehrlichman, an aide to Nixon, said that Nixon used the war on drugs to criminalize and disrupt black and hippie communities and their leaders.
Clearly a fan of Nixon’s drug policy, the 40th US president Ronald Reagan proclaimed a ‘War on Drugs’ in 1981. Reagan’s wife Nancy also began her “just say no” campaign, which sought to discourage school children from drug use.
Rather than take a health-based approach, Reagan was much more concentrated on imprisoning those who used drugs.
In 1986, the U.S. Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which dedicated $1.7 billion to the War on Drugs, and carried out mandatory prison sentences for various drug offenses. The drug of choice during this era was no longer marijuana, but now crack cocaine, which again led to an unequal number of African-American being incarcerated. In 1986, before the enactment of federal mandatory minimum sentencing for crack cocaine offenses, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 11% higher than for whites. Four years later, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 49% higher.
As a response to this, in 1970 the 45th president of the United States, Richard Nixon, revamped the previous Federal Bureau of Narcotics, into what we now know as the DEA: The Drug Enforcement Agency.
In 1989 President Bush appoints William Bennett to lead the new Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). As drug ‘czar’ he; like Anslinger campaigns to make drug abuse socially unacceptable, an approach he calls denormalization. Federal spending on treatment and law enforcement increase under Bennett’s tenure, but treatment remains less than 1/3 of the total budget.
In May 1995, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which governs federal sentencing guidelines, releases a report which notes the racial disparities in cocaine vs. crack sentencing. The commission proposes reducing the inconsistency, but for the first time in history and in the spirit of Anslinger, Congress overrides their recommendation.
In 2000, there were approximately 791,600 African American men in prisons and jails. That same year, there were 603,032 African-American men enrolled in higher education.
In 2003, whites made up 7.8% sentenced under the harsh crack cocaine law. African-Americans constituted more than 80% of the defendants sentenced under the harsh federal crack cocaine laws. How ironic is it that more than 66% of crack cocaine users in the United States are white or Hispanic.
The annual cost of the “war on drugs” exceeds $51 trillion. In 2010, 1.6 million people were arrested on nonviolent drug charges. In the same year, 507,000 people in prisons and jails had been incarcerated for drug offenses – a more than 10-fold increase over the 41,000 people incarcerated for drug offenses in 1980.
African Americans are arrested much more than White Americans. Once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to experience length prison sentences. African American adults are 5.9 times as likely to be imprisoned than Whites and Hispanics are 3.1 times as likely. From 2001, one of every three black males born in that year could expect to go to prison in his lifetime. One in six Latinos could expect to go to prison in their lifetime in comparison with one of every seventeen white children.
These disparities are deeper and more systemic than clear racial discrimination. Poor people know the United States runs two distinct criminal justice systems. One is for wealthy people, another for poor people followed by people of color. The wealthy have access attorneys who can launch vigorous defenses and seek plea agreements with constitutional protections for its defendants. The poor and minority defendants within the criminal justice system often differ substantially from the wealthy. The poor are appointed public defenders who often have three times the clients and limited resources.
President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act on December 21, 2018, to limit mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenses. People imprisoned under the 100 to 1 crack cocaine disparity received retroactive sentence reductions. It also expanded rehabilitation programs in federal prisons.
Liberal drug policies need to be seriously considered. While some states have taken active steps to lessen the sharp sting of U.S. drug policy, these are but a few drops of clean water in a ocean of counterproductive mandates. Truly effective reform will not only require changes at the state level, but ultimately necessitate critical shifts in U.S. federal policies, both domestically and internationally.