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February 11, 2010

More Background

In the last entry I referred to a temporal connection between Adolph Hitler’s consolidation of power in Germany and the passage of Harry Anslinger’s Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. Such connections were what talented science historian James Burke converted into books, a series of Scientific American columns and TV series on both sides of he Atlantic. With appropriate apologies to him, the following will mention similar links between Hitler’s and Anslinger’s two permanent legacies: World War Two and the War on Drugs.

Neither war was the exclusive contribution of either culprit to world history. What they did share, other than being born just three years apart, was a rise from obscurity through combinations of luck, chutzpah, and intellectual dishonesty, plus the ability to seize unexpected opportunities to make a mark on history. Unfortunately for us, both succeeded.

Born in 1889, Hitler had an unhappy adversarial relationship with an elderly, strict father who died suddenly when he was ten. Orphaned four years later by his mother’s death from breast cancer, he was then a bohemian art student; also homeless for a while. Lucky to even survive daring service in World War One, his rhetorical gifts propelled him into a position of leadership in the Nazi party. Ten years after a hare-brained putsch in 1923, that he was also lucky to survive, he suddenly found himself positioned to assert complete control over a nation that shared his resentments and would follow his assertive leadership while also tolerating his virulent antisemitism.

Born on this side of the Atlantic just three years after Hitler, Harry Anslinger, had also learned fluent German (from Swiss-German immigrant parents). Towards the end of World War One, his language ability landed him a job with the Armistice Commission in Europe; he would not leave federal service until retiring on his seventieth birthday and then served as the First UN Commissioner of "Narcotics," a position from which he promoted America's drug policy into its global clone.

His big career break came in 1930 when his wife’s uncle, Andrew Mellon, then Secretary of the Treasury, elevated him from a mid level job in the Treasury's Prohibition unit (doomed to elimination following Reform) to serve as the first Director of the newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a position from which he quickly arrogated the same degree of control of American drug policy as Hitler had the seized over the German nation.

From 1937 on, the comparison becomes less immediate, primarily because Hitler’s 1939 gamble of World War Two entailed far greater personal risk than Anslinger’s Marijuana Tax Act. Thus the delayed metaphorical war Anslinger enabled required help from yet another insecure wannabe warrior named Richard Milhous Nixon. The biographers of both men make clear that they each shared Hitler’s instinct for racial prejudice, if not its virulence.

The Asnlinger-Nixon drug war is still being fought. Despite medical marijuana’s implicit threat to its existence, it shows no sign of ending soon. Often overlooked is that it's waged by the whole world through national police forces against “enemies” who are simply trying to self-medicate. Because illegal drugs are, by and large, safer and more effective than their legal alternatives, the damage being inflicted is both enormous and almost impossible to quantify.

Finally, what seems to render global drug policy most impervious to rational criticism is humanity’s amazing tolerance for its obvious stupidity and failures through the phenomenon of denial. A cognitive species unable to face reality would seem to have limited prospects of solving its most pressing problems.

The smoking gun that could ultimately challenge that denial is the enormous success of illegal marijuana over the forty years that the world has been attempting to suppress its use. I plan to outline that success, and the reasons behind it, in the next entry.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at February 11, 2010 07:05 PM