Marihuana and the FBN


Anslinger became the first Commissioner of Narcotics in 1930, although he had had only sporadic contact with narcotic control.1 Nonetheless, his more than ten years of government experience affected his attitude toward law enforcement and addicts. Anslinger was born in 1892 in Altoona, Pennsylvania. His father worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and while Anslinger went to high school and then to Pennsylvania State College, he also worked for the railroad during the summers, doing maintenance and landscaping and occasionally investigating suspicious incidents for the railroad’s captain of police. Later, when the police captain became the state fire marshal, he offered Anslinger a job compiling statistics and investigating instances of suspected arson. In 1917, after the United States declared war on Germany, Anslinger was employed in Washington in the Ordinance Division of the War Department, where his chief task was to oversee government contracts. Ordinance officers were unpopular in Washington; the public expected young men to fight abroad and, when the opportunity came, Anslinger volunteered to the State Department which was looking for reliable German-speaking employees to work in Holland. He recalls being assigned to “check up on … and straighten out” the indirect American contacts with the Kaiser in order to let the German ruler know that President Wilson wanted him to stay on after the war, but Anslinger failed, obtaining from the whole episode only the Kaiser’s field utility kit which he later gave to the Smithsonian. In 1921 he took the necessary examinations and was appointed to the rank of vice-consul.

After the war, from posts in The Hague and in Hamburg, Anslinger sent many reports to the State Department warning them of trouble to come from Russia, but he was discouraged by the lack of interest in the State Department which, he concluded, considered the Bolshevik menace a myth. Almost no one believed his frequent reports, although he was able to get important information from an informer in the Third International, held in Amsterdam in 1920. Bolsheviks were being signed on as seamen on freighters and were spreading propaganda across the world. In Hamburg he learned that seamen on American-bound ships were being bribed to smuggle narcotics into the United States.

Much to his regret, and in spite of the anti-Bolshevik intelligence work which he believed was of great value, he was sent as consul to La Guaira, Venezuela, a hot and lazy place. He wondered whether he had been mistaken in choosing foreign service as a career. But two years later his interest and ability in intelligence work, now focused on rum-running in the Caribbean, was rewarded by a temporary assignment to the Bahamas where he was asked to find a way to stop the smuggling of liquor into the United States. He persuaded the British to establish landing certificates which would keep a record of all ship movements. The Treasury Department considered this a remarkable accomplishment and Anslinger was, at the Treasury’s request, detailed temporarily to the Prohibition Unit, where he soon became chief of the Foreign Control Section.

In 1929, two years after the unit had achieved bureau status, Anslinger became an Assistant Commissioner of Prohibition. His field experience in enforcement was limited; most of his valued work was at a higher level, but he had definite views on how to repair the flagging effectiveness of a statute like the Volstead Act. In 1928 Anslinger had entered a national competition on how best to enforce the 18th Amendment and prepared a comprehensive program to resuscitate the drive against illicit alcohol.2 Although by that time the object of Prohibition as well as its mode of enforcement had become unpopular, he believed that the right sort of remedy could save the situation.

He suggested ways in which smuggling could be prevented through international agreements. He recommended that Prohibition investigations be made by the Justice Department rather than the Treasury and that additional federal attorneys and judges be appointed to expedite prosecutions; and that a coordinating director be appointed with authority to demand cooperation from the various Prohibition enforcement agencies.

The most interesting feature of Anslinger‘s proposals relates to penalties. The federal Prohibition laws made it a crime to sell, manufacture, or transport liquor for sale, but purchase of liquor was not a crime. Anslinger would have made the purchase of alcohol for nonmedical consumption a violation, and for the first conviction would set a penalty of a fine of not less than $1,000 and imprisonment for not less than six months. For a second or subsequent offense the fine would be between $5,000 and $50,000 and imprisonment for two to five years. In his view these penalties would put teeth into the law and greatly discourage violations. President Hoover did increase the enforcement effectiveness, although not by prohibiting purchase, and a much higher conviction rate was achieved. If a law was wrong, Hoover said, its rigid enforcement was the surest guarantee of its repeal; if it was right, its enforcement was the quickest method of compelling respect.

When Levi Nutt’s leadership became awkward for the Treasury, Anslinger was promoted to head temporarily the Narcotic Division. Within a few months he was appointed the first federal Commissioner of Narcotics. There is no evidence that during Anslinger’s tenure as commissioner he ever changed his mind that the most effective way of gaining public compliance with a law regulating a dangerous drug was a policy of high fines and severe mandatory prison sentences for first convictions. While the public did not agree with this attitude for liquor prohibition, it did support the policy in regard to narcotic control, thanks in part to propaganda like that spread by Richmond Hobson.

In the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Anslinger’s opinions on how best to put teeth into the law met with almost no objection. He rarely found himself curbed by the administrations under which he worked; he was in fact encouraged not to deviate from stringent enforcement. Early in Roosevelt’s first administration Anslinger recalls a visit from the President’s close adviser Louis Howe, who made it clear to Anslinger that should he ever forward to the White House a recommendation for clemency for a drug pusher, he could attach his resignation to it. That intelligence, Howe said, “came from the Boss.” In the late thirties when a congressman from Washington State, perhaps inspired by the White Cross, argued in the House of Representatives for an investigation into the FBN and its style of enforcement, he received no effective support from his congressional colleagues.3 In 1951 a mandatory minimum two-year sentence for first convictions of narcotic possession became law. Five years later the federal penalty for the sale of heroin by someone over age 18 to a buyer under 18 was raised to death at the jury’s discretion.4 Given the prevalent attitude toward narcotic addiction and pushers, Anslinger’s views were in harmony with most of those citizens who were responsible for legislation or executive action. Although his accession as commissioner in 1930 was accidental, and his views on control harsh, Anslinger’s views were not unusual.

The consistency of Anslinger’s position may seem to imply that his experience with Prohibition had created too rigid an attitude toward drug abusers but the failure and demise of Prohibition taught him lessons which he carefully followed in his long tenure in the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Among the first was the risk to any agency that meddled with the personal lives of citizens. Interviews with former Prohibition officers revealed a fear of federal judges, particularly in the dry era, who were angered by the large numbers of “ordinary citizens” hauled into court on minor liquor violations. Anslinger realized that similar judicial displeasure might follow if too many marihuana possession cases were taken to federal courts. He much preferred to have violators brought before local courts by the local police. Naturally this desire to keep within the good graces of the courts caused the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to seek control of only the most obviously dangerous drugs — cocaine and opiates. Anslinger “put sandbags up against the door” whenever anyone suggested that the FBN police barbiturates and amphetamines, for example, because the gray areas meant trouble and perhaps bureaucratic suicide for an enforcement agency with a small budget and staff.

Since both liquor prohibition and narcotic controls were directed at medicinal substances, the American Medical Association (AMA), after World War I, resented the curbs placed on physicians — the medical profession was no more trusted in the discharge of its responsibilities to the 18th Amendment than it was in regard to the Harrison Act. A specific law, the Willis-Campbell Act of November 1921, was enacted in order to limit the number of liquor prescriptions permitted each doctor. The similarity of the Willis-Campbell Act’s restraints to the contemporary Court interpretation of the Harrison Act is obvious, and the physicians’ response, led in the House of Representatives by Congressman Volk, became equally loud.5 Yet large segments of the medical profession were in sympathy with Prohibition. An American Medical Association poll in 1921 revealed that almost 60 percent of the thirty thousand respondents stated that physicians should be restricted in their alcohol prescriptions; among those wanting curbs, “a large majority favor such restrictions as … under the Harrison Narcotic Law.” 6

Sanitariums often treated both narcotic and alcohol addicts; Charles B. Towns was only one operator in the 1920s who claimed great success with both kinds of patients. Yet among most physicians there was little optimism for the cure of alcoholism by any means other than keeping alcohol away from consumers, which was exactly what Prohibition attempted to do. The same kind of interdiction was adopted against narcotic users by the federal government. If the claim was made that alcoholism and narcotism were diseases, the government could claim that neither could be “cured” except by keeping the substance away from the “patients.”

One further lesson the Federal Bureau of Narcotics learned from the Prohibition era was the great assistance citizen groups could offer a federal enforcement agency. The Anti-Saloon League and the WCTU had lobbied effectively. Anslinger remembers these groups and others like them with appreciation, recalling that opposition to Narcotic Bureau policies would be effectively met at times by giving the word to the WCTU or the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, who would then oppose election of public officials who criticized the bureau’s enforcement measures. For example, a son of the friend of a Maryland state legislator was arrested in the 1930s for possession of marihuana and sentenced to several years in prison. The legislator attempted to lessen the state penalties against marihuana, but cued by a word of warning from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), the WCTU and the Federation of Women’s Clubs appeared at the committee hearing when the bill came up and killed it then and there. These aggressive lay groups had gained experience in political lobbying over other issues from women’s suffrage to Prohibition. They were welcomed by the FBN and in the mid-1930s they eagerly took up the battle against marihuana, the new menace to America’s schoolchildren.

Two years after the Federal Bureau of Narcotics achieved bureau status its development was arrested by the Depression. The FBN’s appropriations were cut by Congress and at times the Administration held annual expenditures even below the sums appropriated. The House Appropriations Committee examined the most minute details of the FBN’s annual appropriation request and the matter of a few thousand dollars often required careful documentation for approval. The number of agents began to decline, and the bureau entered a decade of low budgets, averaging 1.1 to 1.3 million dollars annually. This limitation obviously affected enforcement. Publicity and warnings became the methods of control, complementing careful examination of the thousands of physicians’ and druggists’ records.

International Anti-Narcotic Activities, 1930-1936

Federal Control Of Cannabis, 1906-1920

Rising Domestic Fear Of Cannahis, 1920-1934

Prelude To Federal Marihuana Control, 1935-1937

The Marihuana Tax Act