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April 13, 2008

Questions Never Asked and Dots Still Requiring Connection (Historical)

An original intention of this blog was to connect historical dots between today’s huge pot market and the little-known Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. In that context, one might reasonably assume that if the illegal product a national policy intended to dissuade “kids” from even trying, had already been the country's most valuable crop for several years, any discussion of that embarrassing development would be difficult to avoid, especially in the nation claiming to lead the world in "free speech."

But one would be very wrong; the relevant questions are not asked, either by, or of, the very professionals who should be wrestling with them. Instead, the policy is fiercely defended by a scientifically ignorant drug czar as absolutely essential to the national welfare. Nor is his claim that without the drug war our drug problems would be worse even questioned; especially by wonks at the handful of prestigious institutions offering advanced degrees in
“Public Policy.”

In fact, drug policy academics have shown so little interest in Harry Anslinger that not a single scholarly biography has ever appeared. For those with short memories, Harry was the bureaucrat for whom the FBN was created in 1930 and which he ruled with an iron fist until departing abruptly in 1962. During that interval he played a dominant role in protecting and shaping the policy that would quickly become Nixon’s drug war without any meaningful review of its (racist and stupid) basic assumptions. Anslinger was also the driving force behind the 1937 MTA, and authored of the 1961 Single Convention Treaty (now the UN's basis for global drug prohibition).

Given those dubious accomplishments, the absence of a definitive biography can only be understood as an avoidance of embarrassment: just enough of his unsavory history is known to make it impossible to construct a bio that wouldn't cast enormous doubt on  drug war legitimacy. Clearly, no one wants to risk that; what academics would risk bringing down federal displeasure on either himself or his institution? That’s why a recent study of the FBN; one providing a detailed, but necessarily oblique, look at Anslinger through the unguarded recollections of ex-FBN agents is worth reading by anyone with a serious interest in drug policy (a predictably small market).

While The Strength of the Wolf  (Douglas Valentine, Verso, 2004) can't deliver on its subtitle’s claim to be “The Secret History of America’s War on Drugs,” it is, nevertheless, a rare, solidly researched, and historically helpful study of an era that remains shrouded in imposed ignorance. Ironically, it was Valentine's own (understandable) ignorance of American drug policy history that induced him to shift his intended focus from the early CIA to the FBN during an era of great historical importance: the immediate aftermath of World War Two. In his Introduction, Valentine explains the switch: early in his research, he learned that a number of mid-level FBN agents had sought lateral transfers to other federal agencies to preserve their pensions. Several had gone to the CIA, a hated former rival in its early days, but the one favored to prosper during the early Cold War. Generally loyal to Anslinger, neither the ex-agents nor Valentine  ever question the wisdom of prohibiting drugs, but their accounts, as collected and assembled by a  competent investigative reporter, provide a riveting picture of what was essentially a rogue agency that repeatedly broke the law by conducting grotesque experiments in a search for the (non-existent) drug that would allow "mind control" to become a key Cold War
weapon. In that connection, Valentine's descriptions of  the antics  of George H. White are particularly telling.

Time doesn't permit a detailed account of Valentine's main contribution: clarifying key interactions between FBN, FBI, and CIA in the aftermath of World War Two. The bottom line is that our whole government became so obsessed with opposing Communism that it engaged in tactics that were little different than their opponents. The game was then as now: all about "winning," with little concern for long term consequences to either planet or species.

The picture of Anslinger that emerges is one of an insecure mediocrity whose greatest skill was bureaucratic infighting and greatest concern was the protection of his bureau. The main emphasis within the FBN was on “making cases” (gaining key convictions) despite the limited budgets and scarce manpower necessitated by the Great Depression. After World War Two, as it gradually became clear that "narcotics" enforcement would play second fiddle to the CIA's mission, it seems that FBN agents eventually accepted that need, even as they chafed at having to honor it. Ironically, Nixon's drug war, declared after Anslinger's departure and shortly before his death in 1975, would lead to creation of the DEA, the FBN's most obvious successor agency,

Once one realizes the degree to which protection of its mindless policy, always a driving force behind America's drug prohibition bureaucracy,  has contaminated the entire federal government, the political sanctity of the drug war becomes readily understandable. The same is true of "reform," which has allowed itself to be cast in the role of (unwitting) defender of the "drug menace," in the government's prohibition myth.
Ironically, it’s quite likely that when a very sick old Anslinger died in 1975, he had no more idea of where the drug war he'd helped create was headed than Nixon. The same goes for an already-senile Gipper who had dusted it off after Nixon's disgrace at the urging of his spouse  to “just say no.” Then came Poppa Bush who invaded Panama to arrest its president for drug trafficking on behalf of his CIA, and  Bill Clinton may have never inhaled, but he did appoint Barry McCaffrey drug czar and accepted a bribe for pardoning a notorious drug criminal on his way out the door. 

That brings us to the present incumbent, whose administration has set new records for incompetence and dishonesty in its zeal to prove he is more forceful than daddy. The really sad part is that this admittedly inflammatory
rant is far more accurate than the alternative, and more widely believed, scenarios because it's based on actual data from drug users. Even worse, that data has been readily available in California to anyone willing to ask the right questions for the past seven years.

Thus several big dots are still there to be connected.

Doctor Tom


Posted by tjeffo at April 13, 2008 05:47 PM