In his book Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari writes about Harry Anslinger, the Nation’s first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger was a staunch anti-drug crusader, but he also held deeply racist views which came to influence his opinions about drug use and national policy related to specific drugs. In many ways, it was Anslinger’s racist views that created a national prohibition on marijuana, and lead to years of laws prosecuting marijuana use and racially disparate arrests.
Early in his career, Anslinger wasn’t very interested in marijuana. He was more focused on heroin and cocaine, but Hari explains that heroin and cocaine use was not wide spread enough in the American population to justify the size of his agency. As newspapers began to report on crime related to black and brown people in the United States who had used marijuana, Anslinger seized on the opportunity to demonize the drug. Hari writes, “almost overnight, he began to argue the opposite position. Why? He believed the two most-feared groups in the United States – Mexican immigrants and African Americans – were taking the drug much more than white people.”
Despite evidence from researchers and physicians indicating that marijuana use generally did not lead to the atrocities that Anslinger began to claim, he pushed forward with harsh drug policies related to marijuana, policies that he knew would have a racially disparate impact. At a certain point, in the picture Hari presents, it appears that Ansligner began to believe what he wanted and see what he wanted in the world around him. After he proved how dangerous the mafia was in the United States, contrary to the view of many experts, he began to believe his own rhetoric about racial inferiority and marijuana dangers. Hari writes, “Anslinger began to believe all his hunches would turn out like this. He only had to defy the experts and keep using his instinct until, finally, he would be shown to be more right than anyone could have predicted.”
Anslinger was clearly wrong, and his stance and attitude are easy to denounce today. But what we should learn from his story is just how dangerous public policy can be when it is motivated by racist values and hatred. For many of us today, we believe our values are high minded, and we believe that the policies we favor can have no downside. Nevertheless, we can still learn from the example of Anslinger and the resulting racial problems his policies created in the Untied States.
We need to be honest with ourselves and those around us about the values that drive our policy decisions. We should be honest about the potential failure points of the policy we support, and we should acknowledge that there are potential negatives of what we do. This requires that we recognize the message we are trying to push, and avoid simply looking for examples in the world that confirm what we already want to believe. If our values are indeed high-minded, and if we can be open and honest about our motivations, then our policies should be supported by a larger audience. Failing to be honest and open can put us in a place where we defend bad policy, and push for policies that explicitly hurt others, without us acknowledging the downsides. It is also critical that we acknowledge the role that race plays (or has the potential to play) in the policies and attitudes we support. The same reflection and honesty regarding our policies must apply to the racial outcomes of the policies we favor, and we have to push back against policies with disparate negative outcomes for minority groups.