He was a brilliant bureaucrat with a grand vision underpinned by prohibition; a man who single-handedly turned a marginalised, underfunded Bureau into an uncompromising and powerful war machine.
But, as Johann Hari reveals in his compelling book “Chasing the Scream – the first and last days of the war on drugs,” Anslinger was also a zealot and racist:
“The most frightening aspect of marijuana, [Anslinger] warned, was on blacks. It made them forget the appropriate racial barriers – and unleashed their lust for white women.”
Harry’s dream has become a global nightmare.
I’m not sure of the exact date, but I’ll never forget the encounter.
I first met ‘Sally’ (not her real name) in late 1997 at St Canice’s parish, Kings Cross.
She was homeless. She was an addict. She was paid for sex.
Sally was exhausted – her life was exhausting.
She needed some respite – just a couple of nights in a safe place, please.
At that time, St Canice’s was providing temporary shelter for working girls just like Sally. The accommodation was very basic: a small room with a single bed and a sink overlooking the church’s carpark.
For a brief period, it was my responsibility to help clean the room and welcome its guests. It was a simple process: strip the bed, put on clean sheets, wash the floor and sink, and empty the bedside bin which was a popular hang-out for used syringes.
This is how I came to meet Sally. She arrived one afternoon set for a couple of night’s accommodation and we had a chat:
Yeh, that’d be good, thanks.
How’d you sleep?
Not bad; it’s nice to be safe, which ain’t too common given me lifestyle.
It must be awful feeling so unsettled …
Yeh, not much fun; not much of a life, neither.
If you don’t mind me asking, how long have you been using … and living on the streets?
God, I’ve been usin’ since I was a teenager … almost 20 years now!
Sorry, excuse me; the kettle’s boiled; any sugars?
Yeh, three, please … make it four.
Ta; that’d be nice.
There you go, hope it’s not too strong.
Yeh, I had me first shot when I was fourteen. Mum used to entertain a lot, if you know what I mean; not nice blokes, neither. They used to rough me up quite a bit; had a pretty terrible childhood, really. Mum was a user too. That’s how I got into the gear … and prostitution.
Hope you don’t mind me asking; but do you think you’ll ever escape all this; the drugs, the …?
Look, gettin’ off the gear’s the easy bit; but what for? What am I goin’ to do when I get off it? I’ve been a prostitute and user since I was fourteen; haven’t worked for nearly 20 years; not much of a CV. Not much of a story for a future employer, is it? The thing people don’t understand is that all me friends are users, too. This is my world. This is all I know. So, if I stop usin’, it means I’ve gotta give up me friends as well. I’d have to find another world. It’d be like startin’ all over. I’m not sure I can do that. I’m not sure I’d know where to start … it’s not just a physical thing, drug addiction …
When one listens to stories like Sally’s, two things become apparent: firstly, how traumatised and sick she is, and secondly, how much her drug induced chaos makes sense, as terrible as that may sound. After all, why wouldn’t she pursue relief from such unbearable psychological pain – ever had a knee replacement or a tooth pulled and refused pain-killers?
As many addicts will tell you, addiction is really a disease of loneliness and self-worthlessness – much of it stemming from abuse.
Indeed, “it’s not just a physical thing, drug addiction.”
And here-in lies the problem with the war on drugs: it is a war that predominately targets the sick and the weak and the poor.
It is a war against the Sallys of the world who, thanks to prohibition, are forced to hunt for their pain relief amidst wicked and brutal people in wicked and brutal places.
One might even say we have criminalised pain relief.
Yet still, after almost a century, most of the generals and policy boffins prosecuting this war continue to pursue Mr Anslinger’s ideology of prohibition and criminalisation: if you get rid of the chemicals and swat away the users and sellers, all will be well.
But all is not well wherever this ideology abounds.
Indeed, prohibition has inadvertently created another war: the war FOR drugs: a murderous, multi-billion dollar free-for-all overseen by transnational cartels, gangs, and assorted opportunists.
The global misery and damage is incalculable.
This tsunami of crime has also spawned a brutal and unjust judicial system; one which powerfully prosecutes the weak and weakly prosecutes the powerful. Look who is filling our gaols: in the U.S. and Australia it is those who are poor and black and addicted – Mr Anslinger would be pleased.
The nature of this racist backdrop is encapsulated in the following exchange between decorated American police officer, Matthew Fogg, and one of his superiors. Once again, we turn to Hari’s “Chasing the Scream”:
“Fogg was bewildered as to why his force only ever went to black neighbourhoods to chase drug users. He suggested to his boss they start raiding white neighbourhoods as well.
“‘Fogg,’ his boss said, ‘you know you’re right they are using drugs there but you know what? If we go out and we start targeting those individuals, they know judges, they know lawyers, they know politicians, they know all the big folks in government. If we start targeting them … you know what’s going to happen? We’re going to get a phone call and they’re going to shut us down … There goes your overtime. There goes the money that you’re making. So let’s just go after the weakest link. Let’s go after those who can’t afford the attorneys, those who we can lock up.’”
The war on drugs has encouraged governments, police, the law, and us to look upon the Sallys of our world with a dismissive contempt. Thus, Sally and her ilk are swatted off to the streets and into humiliating prison settings which are far more adept at re-traumatising the traumatised than rehabilitation.
When asked how Australia might most effectively respond to the drug problem, Dr Alex Wodak AM, President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, had this to say:
“We should be making primarily a health and social response. I say ‘primarily’ because there should always be some law enforcement; if there was a tanker full of heroin coming to our ports I like to think something would be done about that.
“But this is also about gross inequalities in our communities. Australia is a much more unequal county compared to countries in Scandinavia, or Japan that have lower levels of drug use. Generally the more unequal the country the higher the levels of drug use.
“From a social perspective, we should do everything we can to keep people who use illicit drugs integrated in the community, and if they fall out then we should help them reintegrate. One of the most helpful things we can do is encourage them to get a decent education and some training and help them gain meaningful employment that will maintain their self-respect.
“From a health perspective, let’s say it was your sister with the drug problem and she really wanted to stop. Every relative would want her to go to a counselor or health professional rather than be picked up by the police. The criminal justice system is stigmatizing, if your sister was to go to jail the stigma will always hang over her… when finding a boyfriend, getting a job, renting a place. Making sure people are not irretrievably damaged is very important.”
Hear, hear. Sally’s worth it.
Peter Day is a Catholic Priest in Canberra.