prev next

Keep yourselfup to date

News & Blog Chasing the Scream: Harry Anslinger, Arnold Rothstein and the Genesis of the War on Drugs


Chasing the Scream: Harry Anslinger, Arnold Rothstein and the Genesis of the War on Drugs

chasing-the-scream-3By Kevin P. Kelly

The War on Drugs, now in its 100th year, is an unqualified failure. Escalating drug use, continued dehumanization of the addict, increasing breakdown of the family unit, growing violence, and staggering incarceration rates are the results we have to show for our current $41 billion/year, taxpayer-funded course of action.

In his latest work Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, renowned journalist and author Johann Hari invites readers on a three year journey in his quest to understand how the War on Drugs has brought us to such a point and whether there is hope for the future. To Hari’s surprise, countless interviews and research taking him across nine continents and through a wide spectrum of socio-economic circumstance returned a familiar story, time over time. He realized that most assumptions we have about drugs and drug use are wrong. Further, that the War on Drugs, far from strengthening moral foundations and keeping us safe has actually served to erode the family, feed criminal enterprise, and change us into a society willing to accept our fellow suffering human beings as unworthy of compassion and disposable. Wondering whether one hundred years of that devastation is enough time to realize that prohibition is neither enforceable, nor the solution, Hari muses: “We can’t  keep drugs out of our prisons and we have got walled perimeters around them. If you can’t keep drugs out of a super-max prison, what hope do you have of keeping them out of the United States?”

Chasing the Scream opens with the introduction of Harry Anslinger, Billie Holiday, and Arnold Rothstein- three very different individuals thrown together in history for their involvement with drugs. Portrayed by Hari as pivotal players in the origination of the War on Drugs, their true value to the story is in the reader’s ability to see them in countless others. In this way, the early 1900′s Anslinger, Holiday and Rothstein- enthusiastic prohibitionist enforcer, dehumanized addict, and criminal beneficiary of the Drug War, respectively, represent the very same pattern playing out all over the world today.

“Harry Anslinger is the most influential person no one has ever heard of,” began Hari during our recent conversation. “He is the inventor of the modern War on Drugs, not just in the United States, but internationally. Anslinger was a racist government bureaucrat who took over the Federal Bureau of Narcotics just as alcohol prohibition was ending.”

Anslinger, seeking both to reenergize a demoralized agency and to ensure/expand his own status, shifted the focus of his department. Although narcotics including heroin and cocaine had been prohibited since the Harrison Act of 1914, a loophole existed that still allowed physicians to write prescriptions as they saw fit. The Act further mandated that addicts be dealt with compassionately. Anslinger, whose personal crusade was the complete eradication of all drugs, saw to it that any physician who dared write such a prescription would be arrested, even given the terms of the Harrison Act. His absolute authority then undeniable, Anslinger undertook a campaign of fear and misinformation regarding marijuana, which he believed to be used with much greater frequency than cocaine or heroin, and largely so by Mexican immigrants and African Americans. Playing perfectly into Anslinger’s ambitions of increased Bureau necessity and racial division, he ordered his department to begin aggressively targeting cannabis. The strategy worked. Within a short period, people began demanding that the Bureau of Narcotics be further funded in order to save them from the cannabis threat.

Having ensured the Bureau’s wellbeing with his “reefer madness” operation, Anslinger turned his attention and efforts to undermining the jazz industry. Billie Holiday represented all that Anslinger so despised- the freedom of jazz music, heroin addiction, African-Americans, and galling defiance of his authority.  That made her the perfect target. Anslinger undertook a mission to publicly destroy Holiday, sending agents to stalk her and to eventually orchestrate her arrests and incarcerations.

Anslinger would continue his harassment of Holiday, even up to the end of her life when she was diagnosed with liver cancer. “She is taken to a hospital in New York City and they refuse to take her because she is an addict,” said Hari. “So, she is taken to another hospital and…the Federal Bureau of Narcotics arrests her on her death bed.” Hari goes on to describe the Bureau’s malicious treatment of Holiday, refusing her the company of friends, her beloved music, and any comfort. Beautiful, talented Billie Holiday died in agony upon being removed from heroin withdraw-relieving methadone.

And what of Arnold Rothstein? Hari characterizes Rothstein as an angry, violent child who grew into an angry, violent gangster. Anslinger, one of the few government officials who believed in the existence and criminality of the mafia at the time, held that the Drug War he was waging would bring about the downfall of organized crime. In reality, drug prohibition actually fed the criminal empire, leading to the creation of drug gangs and ensuring gangster kingpin Rothstein’s escalating power. Referencing two enlightened sibling-physicians of the early War on Drugs, Henry and Edward Smith Williams, who both fought for humanizing treatment/medical withdraw options for addicts, Hari offered, “So, that loophole…where doctors could prescribe heroin for addicts, it was shot down state by state…One of the last states to shut it down was California, probably because it was hugely popular in California…We now know why it was shut down…An agent of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was bribed by the local drug gangs to enforce the Drug War and shut down the clinics because they were pissed off that the criminals in Nevada got all of the drug addicts going to them, but in California they could go to the doctor.” According to Hari, this is most telling- that from the very beginning, armed criminal gangs wanted the Drug War, so much so that they would pay for it to be introduced and enforced.

Anslinger, blind to the Rothstein(s) that his Drug War was creating and seeking to even further expand his influence, began looking outside of his country’s own borders. “You have a situation where at the end of the Second World War the United States had incredible diplomatic might and he forced it [the Drug War] on countries that didn’t want to do it…” Threatening to sever diplomatic ties and halt the flow of foreign aid to decimated nations following the War if they did not implement his prohibitionist drug regimen, Anslinger ensured adoption.

Today, however, many foreign countries are seeking alternatives to the Drug War. “There are countries that have moved beyond the War on Drugs and none of them have ever regretted it” explained Hari, offering several nations, including Portugal, as example: “Fifteen years ago Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe. One percent of the population was addicted to heroin…They tried the American Drug War approach and every year it got worse. So, they decided to do something differently. The leaders of the main political parties got together and said, let’s set up a panel of scientists and doctors to figure out what we should do, and let’s agree in advance that we will abide by whatever they recommend…What the panel came back and recommended was…let’s decriminalize everything from cannabis to crack. But crucially, let’s use all the money that we currently use on arresting drug users, trying drug users, imprisoning drug users…on really good drug treatment to reconnect drug addicts with society -things like subsidized jobs for addicts…housing for addicts…really good and honest drug education.” It is easy to understand why Portugal does not want to return to American-style drug laws. Since accepting the panel’s recommendations, Portugal has cut its national drug use, along with the rate of overdoses and HIV infections.

And there is hope for the United States as well. Startling statistics at home and abroad have spurred conversation and grassroots action, and progress is being made. Activists in Colorado and Washington have succeeded in proposing ballot initiatives to legalize recreational marijuana use. Further, several prospective candidates seeking the Republican Party’s presidential nomination such as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have discussed the possibility of either repealing mandatory minimum laws or of treating drug addiction as a public health crisis. Traditionally seen as “zero tolerance,” movement by the Republican Party is very extremely significant.

Obviously, the War on Drugs is a failure. The questions can no longer be “how do we stop drug flow and keep people from using drugs?” One hundred years has shown that to be a moot avenue-drugs are here, and drug use and cost to society is growing. The question we need to now address is “how do we contain drug use and its devastating consequences?”

When asked whether he thought that the United States would ever implement decriminalizing alternatives resembling those of Portugal or other forward-thinking countries, Hari was quite optimistic: “Yes, it is very achievable, but it will require a lot of people to organize, fight and demand it. Legalization and ending the Drug War does not mean that everything will be sold openly…No one wants a crack aisle at CVS. It means different routes for different drugs. So, for example, with heroin it would return to what happened in California when it worked well-with prescriptions coming from doctors…With cannabis, we would sell openly. There [sic] is a range of things.”

An unchallenged bully, determined to implement his vision of a Drug War-one founded on “the deepest fears in American culture-of racial minorities, of intoxication, of losing control”-Harry Anslinger provided the United States a drug policy that was compromised from the very beginning. Yet, one hundred years later, it is still being enforced. In Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari challenges us to consider the opportunity cost of our actions over the past century-the cost in dollars, humanity, life-and to imagine a new reality, one in which addiction is met with compassion, the family unit is nourished while organized crime is starved, and taxpayer funds are used responsibly. Such reality, he assures us, is well within our reach.

For more information on how you can end the War on Drugs, visit

kevinkellyphotoKevin Patrick Kelly is a columnist for Oliver Stone’s Untold History website. He was previously a columnist for The Washington Times Communities. You can follow him on Twitter @TheKevinPKelly.