DEA Tribute to Harry J. Anslinger Fails on All Fronts

The problem with paying homage to a racist is that you’re paying homage to a racist.

Harry J. Anslinger was a racist.

This is a bold proclamation but one sadly born out by the facts. The examples, painfully, are numerous. They were also often obvious. Yes, Anglinger’s rhetoric was not some subtle shade of hate but rather a loudly stated belief he openly voiced. Take as evidence this revolting passage taken directly from Angslinger’s 1961 book, “The Murderers: The Shocking Story of the Narcotic Gangs”:

“The Chinese underworld of dope — combined with gambling and prostitution — had its own special Oriental ruthlessness, which fitted the aura of violence and brutality and killing that has always been the hallmark of the narcotics underworld.”

Abhorrent words from any mouth, but one must remember: Anslinger wasn’t just another ignorant voice in the crowd.

Instead he is today widely “credited” as the founding figure of America’s war on drugs. This distinction is thanks to his decades of work spearheading policies designed to demonize immigrants and minorities. By creating a connotation between “dangerous” drugs and minority groups, Anglinger’s federal Narcotics Bureau (a precursor to today’s DEA) managed to both ruin countless lives and set cannabis advocacy and research back nearly a century.

Given his despicable resume, it’s thus difficult to fathom the DEA’s reasoning in hosting a virtual exhibition in Angslinger’s honor, but that’s exactly what they’ve done.

According to the New York Times, the idea actually originated back in 2014 during a DEA symposium devoted to the former U.S. drug czar.

“Following that,” the Times notes, “in 2015, the agency’s museum opened an exhibition: ‘A Life of Service: Harry Jacob Anslinger, 1892-1975.’ When that closed in 2017, the D.E.A. Museum & Visitors Center created a virtual version, which is displayed on its website. But neither the live exhibition nor the virtual one mentioned that Mr. Anslinger has been criticized for making racist and denigrating remarks, accusations that have trailed him for years.”

Instead, the virtual ‘A Life of Service’ exhibit reportedly “does not discuss the issue of racial remarks and attributes the harshest criticism of him to ‘those opposed to laws governing marijuana.’” Even more preposterous is the suggestion from museum director Laurie Baty that the DEA “has always acknowledged that the history of drug control policy and enforcement is complicated and ever-evolving.’” Has it? Without searching too intensely for proof, one might point to their current exhibition devoted to Harry Anslinger that doesn’t even acknowledge the time a U.S. senator demanded Anglinger’s resignation for being too racist.

The senator in question? Joseph F. Guffey, a representative for Pennsylvania who objected to a racial slur used by Anslinger to describe a Black informant in a 1934 internal letter to narcotics bureau district supervisors. Guffey’s cries went unanswered, as Anglinger continued to serve in office until 1962. Now, nearly 60 years later, Anslinger’s legacy is still apparently yet to answer for its crimes.

So why is Angslinger being used to educate the public about cannabis? The former drug czar’s position on weed was informed by hate and pseudo-science. Today, some of the world’s top scientists, doctors, and agricultural experts now devote their days to the study of cannabis. Where are they?

Even if one eliminates contemporary figures from the equation — which would be an admittedly foolish thing to do — there are still a number of superior choices to Anslinger. For example, why not make an exhibition devoted to medical marijuana advocate Dennis Peron or “Brownie” Mary Rathbun? Why limit the narrative to laws about drugs when such limitations have clearly failed in every meaningful way? Even for those who believe in “try and try again,” this is a lot of failing to endure.

Obviously, the reason for omitting any individuals who actually cared about cannabis is explained by the DEA’s mere existence, but something has to change at some point. If nothing else, the longer any outdated relics of America’s failed war on drugs remain, the longer it will take to set the record straight.

Harry J. Anslinger is dead. It’s past time to bury him — and his way of thinking about drugs — once and for all.

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