When Prohibition ended in 1933, drug enforcers finally had a new agency they could call their own, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. This launched the career of its first commissioner, Harry Anslinger, the person most synonymous with the phrase “war on drugs”—in fact, the first person to use it—and likely the first person, outside of any royal family, to be referred to as a “czar.”
Between 1930 and 1962, Anslinger established the standards that continue to serve as basic tools of the trade for America’s drug enforcement, such as dramatic drug busts, harsh penalties and questionable data. There remains serious disagreement in scholarly as well as political circles about how successful Anslinger really was in reducing drug sales and use in America, though he achieved several significant legislative victories, including the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act, which fostered collaboration between federal agents and police in different states (each of which had its own specific laws).
But, as difficult as passing drug laws is, enforcing them effectively, consistently and fairly has proven to be virtually impossible.
Anslinger unapologetically divided the world into us and them, good and bad, right and wrong—and always black and white. While Anslinger’s 30-year war on drugs undoubtedly saved the lives of some individuals, his racial prejudices tarnished his reputation in ways that, even allowing for 20/20 hindsight, can’t be dismissed. The most blatant example was his disparate treatment of two of the nation’s most famous celebrities in the 1950s: Judy Garland and Billie Holiday. Click here to continue reading the article.