Harry Aslinger and the War on Drugs: A History of Politicking and Racism

For decades, cannabis users have struggled with criminalization and stigma. However, not all of us know about Harry Aslinger, the War on Drugs, and how his politicking and racism are at the root of anti-drug policies globally.

Harry Aslinger was a United States government official who served under one of the most repressive regimes in American history, namely during the time of J. Edgar Hoover. Under his leadership, he established the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), the predecessor to the Drug Enforcement Agency, to lobby for harsh penalties on drug use.

Photo by: Penn State Special Collection

Credited for masterminding America’s War on Drugs, his legacy has had lasting and damaging impacts that span continents. Today, we will learn about his crusade against cannabis and how today’s drug laws around the world rest on his erroneous and hate-mongering rhetoric.

Harry Aslinger’s War on Drugs was about Power and Politics

By the time Aslinger was appointed chief of the FBN in 1930, he had already borne witness to Prohibition and how shoddy enforcement and its unpopularity with citizens led to its downfall. Determined not to allow his newly-minted agency to suffer the same fate, he quickly devised a strategy to ensure his position remained as relevant as possible for posterity.

From the moment he took charge of the bureau, Harry was aware of the weakness of his new position. A war on narcotics alone—cocaine and heroin, outlawed in 1914—wasn’t enough… They were used only by a tiny minority, and you couldn’t keep an entire department alive on such small crumbs. He needed more.

Johann Hari in Chasing the Scream

First, he had to reverse his previously held opinion that cannabis was not harmful. To do this, he cherry-picked 200 pieces of “evidence” on how cannabis use was related to violent crime and paraded these trumped-up talking points to the media. As expected, researchers later found out that Aslinger purposefully fabricated cannabis’ connection with violent crime in 198 of these cases. The remaining two cases could not even be verified as having existed. He also actively obscured evidence from credible scientists and medical professionals, a majority of whom vehemently disagreed with his assertions against cannabis.

Working together with yellow journalism, tabloids and other unscrupulous media entities, Aslinger spread misinformation and hysteria to the American public, government and even his overseas counterparts, including Canada’s own Charles Henry Ludovic Sharman. The FBN also had operations in Turkey, Lebanon, Thailand and Europe, extending their influence and propagating their mission worldwide.

Aslinger with Sharman. Photo by: Harris and Ewing Collection

His campaign of fear and hate worked like a charm, culminating in The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which made the possession, transport and sale of cannabis illegal throughout the United States under federal law.

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.

Quote: Harry Aslinger

Racism and the War on Drugs as a Culture War

On top of solidifying his position as chief of the FBN and making his agency out to be more important than it was, Aslinger had another motivation for crusading against drugs: to vilify and destroy the radical ethos and cultural icons of the Jazz Age.

Harry Aslinger and musicians

He easily got white America on his side by resorting to convenient dog-whistles and portraying cannabis as a tool used by people of colour to perpetuate the degeneration of “American values.”

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.

Quote: Harry Aslinger

Anslinger published the article “Marijuana, Assassin of Youth” in the same year he imposed the Marihuana Tax. The essay is an extended rant about how getting high will lead to the destruction of America. He further elaborated on his racist and anti-culture views, specifically pinning Jazz music as a catalyst or stimulant for propagating cannabis use. This, of course, is a thinly-veiled assertion that it really is people of colour, through their debased and decadent cultural offerings, who are trying to lure well-behaved white youth over to the dark side.

Those who first spread its use were musicians. They brought the habit northward with the surge of “hot” music demanding players of exceptional ability, especially in improvisation. Along the Mexican border and in southern seaport cities it had long been known that the drug has a strangely exhilarating effect upon the musical sensibilities.

Quote: Harry Aslinger
Harry Aslinger war on drugs

Jazz singer Billie Holiday was just one of the prominent musicians and cultural icons targeted by Aslinger. He hounded her incessantly, especially after releasing her song “Strange Fruit,” a sharp chastisement of racism and lynching in America. Friends and colleagues often attribute her death in part to the stress she faced due to Aslinger’s harassment. Aslinger himself admitted as much in his 1964 book, The Protectors. In the chapter “Jazz and Junk Don’t Mix,” he bragged about handcuffing Holiday on her death bed due to suspicion of drug use and possession. Aslinger also kept many files about his operations and ideas, including “Marijuana and Musicians,” which detailed his plans for a nationwide crackdown on jazz musicians. 

Supposedly, even the popularity of the terms “marijuana” or “marihuana” was a dog-whistle by Aslinger. He purportedly moved away from calling the drug “cannabis,” instead preferring the more “exotic” and “foreign-sounding” marijuana as a way to stir up xenophobic sensibilities.

For decades and into the present, people of colour continue to bear the brunt of Harry Aslinger’s War on Drugs. The United States has the highest incarcerated population of any country, and drug laws disproportionately affect black and brown communities.

The creation of a prison industrial complex no doubt benefited government officials like Harry Aslinger. In the ensuing decades, politicians continue to use fear mongering and scapegoating to solidify their power.

Today, we know Harry Aslinger War on Drugs is unscientific, racist and detrimental to communities. Yet, global governments continue to push anti-drug laws, with little acknowledgement that their crusades were fuelled and justified by the rantings of a power-hungry racist.