If you ever want a brazen example of systemic racism in the wild, you need look no further than prison statistics in the U.S. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, 30 percent of drug arrests in the U.S. in 2013 involved Black suspects, even though Black people share comparable usage stats with other races and only made up 13 percent of the population. Black prisoners made up nearly 40 percent of those incarcerated in state or federal prison for drug law violations at that time.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s due to the fault of a few bad actors using their positions of power to advance personal agendas, but the truth is that cannabis law was almost certainly designed to target Black people.
The groundwork for prohibition was laid in the 1930s by the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger. This is a story about racism—to be sure—but Anslinger wasn’t trying to stop a noble cause like civil rights. No, Anslinger had a serious problem with jazz music.
According to journalist Johann Hari, soon after Anslinger took over the Bureau of Narcotics, it become a small office with little to do and no future. It had formerly been the Department of Prohibition, fulfilling a vital role in the government by shutting down illegal booze and narcotics operations. But prohibition ended, and without any real purpose, the whole wing was suddenly in danger of being shut down.
Faced with career uncertainty, this oafish bureaucrat did what any oafish bureaucrat would do in his situation: He found a target for his merry band of government flunkies and stoked the fires of public fear.
The Dream Slayer
In 1933 police arrived at a murder scene in Tampa, Fla. They reportedly found Victor Licata on the bathroom floor, ranting wildly. Licata told police that he had had a terrible dream in which his father had come into his bedroom and pinned him to the wall. In the dream his mother chopped off his arms with a knife and replaced them with wooden arms. He told police he grabbed a “funny” ax that seemed to be made out of rubber and attacked them all. Both of his parents and his two siblings were found dead in the home, hacked apart by an ax.
The 21-year-old murderer had previously been diagnosed with schizophrenia, but he’d also been drinking moonshine and smoking cannabis the night of the murder. The papers dubbed Licata the “Dream Slayer” and locked onto the cannabis aspect of the story.
Anslinger used this case to justify targeting cannabis (and justify the existence of his department). He wrote an article article entitled “Marijuana—Assassin of Youth,” and gave testimony before Congress that led to the passing of the Marijuana Act of 1937. And it appears that he did all of this specifically to stop the terror that was jazz music.
He Hated Jazz
Anslinger had a strange obsession with jazz music. And he wasn’t just complaining about noisy youngin’ dance tunes. When he attended jazz clubs, he heard the distinct notes of the apocalypse. “It sounded like the jungles in the dead of night,” Anslinger wrote in one of his memos. In another he noted that within jazz, “unbelievably ancient indecent rites of the East Indies are resurrected.”
Cannabis was at the very center of his problem with jazz. He noticed that jazz musicians and fans perceived time differently under the influence of cannabis, and believed that it explained the insane and devilish sounds escaping jazz clubs every night. “Many among the jazzmen think they are playing magnificently when under the influence of marihuana,” wrote one of Anslinger’s agents in a report, “but they are actually becoming hopelessly confused and playing horribly.”
Anslinger ordered his agents to raid jazz musicians’ houses and “shoot first,” but had trouble making convictions stick. The Treasury Department ultimately ordered him to stop wasting time and money on the project. Not to be deterred, Anslinger decided to narrow his focus on one of the most famous jazz singers of all time: Billie Holiday.
Anslinger’s agents began a harassment campaign against Holiday, a known heroin addict. She was watched day and night and busted on a number of occasions. She would end up losing her cabaret performer’s license and be forced to quit singing in the U.S. She also served a year in a West Virginia prison. “It was called ‘The United States of America versus Billie Holiday,’” she wrote in her memoir, “and that’s just the way it felt.”
The Bureau of Narcotics was far from done with her, though. One agent tried busting her for heroin following her time in prison. It was noted by journalists that the drugs claimed to have been found by agents were never entered into evidence. Holiday willingly entered herself into a rehab clinic to prove that she wasn’t addicted to heroin anymore and reportedly showed no signs of withdrawal. When the case went to trial, the jury sided with Holiday.
Anslinger literally hounded Holiday into her grave. She was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and admitted to the hospital. Government agents immediately descended. They claimed they’d found heroin in a tinfoil envelope hanging on a nail on the wall in the room where she was bedridden. Her friends and family were denied entry, and protesters gathered outside her window.
Holiday died in that hospital room surrounded by Bureau of Narcotics agents.
Anslinger lived to the ripe old age of 82. He died of heart failure. His vendetta against Black musicians lives on to this day in the form of cannabis prohibition.