03/03/17 Alexandra Chasin

Cultural Baggage Radio Show

Alexandra Chasin author of "Assassin of Youth - A Kaleidoscopic History of Harry J. Anslinger's War on Drugs" + Dr. Jokubas Ziburkus re Cannabis Seminar at UH on Thur Mar 9

Audio file


MARCH 3, 2017


DEAN BECKER: I am Dean Becker, your host. Our goal for this program is to expose the fraud, misdirection, and the liars whose support for drug war empowers our terrorist enemies, enriches barbarous cartels, and gives reason for existence to tens of thousands of violent US gangs who profit by selling contaminated drugs to our children. This is Cultural Baggage.

VOICEOVER: This is Harry J. Anslinger, Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

HARRY J. ANSLINGER: The Treasury Department intends to pursue a relentless warfare against the despicable dope-peddling vulture who preys on the weakness of his fellow man.

DEAN BECKER: You know, today, even as marijuana is slowly being legalized, we still have not fully reckoned with the racist and xenophobic foundations of our cultural appetite for the severe punishment of drug offenders. In Assassin Of Youth: A Kaleidoscopic History Of Harry J. Anslinger's War On Drugs, Alexandra Chasin shows us the deep, twisted roots of both our love and our hatred for drug prohibition, and we have that author with us right now. Alexandra, how are you doing?

ALEXANDRA CHASIN: I'm doing fine, Dean, thanks.

DEAN BECKER: Alexandra, I thought I knew a lot about this first drug czar, Harry J. Anslinger, but you have really dug deep and exposed much of the fabric of this drug war through your writing. I want to thank you.

ALEXANDRA CHASIN: You're welcome.

DEAN BECKER: Tell us a little bit about Harry J. Anslinger. Who is he? Was he.

ALEXANDRA CHASIN: Harry J. -- well, Harry J. Anslinger was the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a job that he held from 1930, when the Bureau was established, until 1962. So he was in that post for over 30 years, and he is therefore credited, or blamed, depending on your perspective, for really establishing prohibitionist drug policy in the United States. He came from Altoona, Pennsylvania. He grew up there in the 1890s. He would, as a child, have received alcohol education in school as so many people did, because of the strength of the movement to prohibit liquor, which was ramping up in those days, although it would not come to pass until almost 1920.

And, he grew up as everybody in Altoona did, affected by, or was, by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, which was the largest corporation in the country and possibly world at the time, and was very elaborately organized and perfecting its division and subdivision into departments and subdepartments because of the number of employees that it had, the amount of service that it provided, and the amount of capital that it controlled and circulated.

And so, my belief is that Harry J. Anslinger grew up at the knee of the ascended corporation, and that when he turned to government service, which he did in the late nineteen teens, that he brought with him many of the lessons of governing corporations, and turned them to the federal government.

That's where he came from, and that was some of his background, and I'd be happy to say more, of course, about what he did once he got into office, although the drug war in many ways precedes him. In a certain way, he drew through certain kinds of strands in the culture and in the law that enabled him, or prepared him, to establish so firmly the prohibitionist drug policy that we still have.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah, Alexandra, right, the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Act did kind of precede his efforts, but he certainly latched onto what had been, what had begun and, well, just escalated to what we have today, right?

ALEXANDRA CHASIN: Absolutely. The Harrison Act, which is certainly the cornerstone of the legislation for the drug war, was just a stamp act, it was really meant to require physicians to register and to pay a very small fee for prescribing narcotics, but it was used of course to launch a kind of drug war, and the first victims of it were mainly physicians.

Between when the law was enacted, in the beginning of 1915, and about 1927, there were thousands of cases where physicians were tried for two kinds of prescribing of narcotics. One was cases where physicians were very clearly dealing large quantities of drugs and charging money for them, and writing prescriptions to fictitious patients and working in cahoots with pharmacists all over the town. So that was one kind of problem that physicians were perpetrating, and they were charged with that, but physicians were also charged in significant numbers for doing what was called maintenance prescribing, that is, prescribing very small amounts of narcotics to people who were habituated, just for the purpose of staving off the physical rigors of withdrawal.

And so that was really in a sense what was being battled in court, was who had the authority to decide whether that was good medical practice, sound medical practice, and whether physicians should be allowed to do that. So both the authority and the legality of the act were in question.

DEAN BECKER: Well, and you go in depth looking at one Doctor Charles Linder, based in Spokane, and how he was, oh, I don't know how to say this, just that, set as an example for other doctors around the country.

ALEXANDRA CHASIN: Yeah, he was set up, for sure. This is a case where a local physician treating local patients was basically set up by, there was a stool pigeon brought in, she gave a certain story about her doctor being out of town, and he prescribed her a very, very, very small amount of narcotics and was pretty immediately arrested, and went through several court cases and appeals, and was ultimately exonerated, but of course his career had been destroyed in the process, and he was not the first. That case was actually sort of later in this period of so much prosecution of physicians that had already been going on for years.

And it really frightened physicians, it actually changed how a lot of physicians approached maintenance prescription. They mostly got scared and withdrew from that, which of course just adds fuel to a black market in narcotics.

DEAN BECKER: Right, and it leaves those few doctors who are still willing to prescribe to look as if they're over-prescribing, overdoing it, and therefore looking guilty. Right?


DEAN BECKER: You know, this belief in the drug war, I mean, it's got deep roots, I call it a quasi-religion. Even last night, President Trump spoke about, they're going to end the, you know, drugs here in America, eventually they're going to stop it. It's, well, your thoughts there, please.

ALEXANDRA CHASIN: Well, I have several thoughts about that. One of the reasons that I wrote the book was because I was trying to account for how drug prohibition could be such a popular and durable program, it's been in place for almost 80 years, even though it very consistently fails to meet its own stated goals. So what accounts for the life of a program that fails constantly? Interdiction stops approximately 5 percent of illegal commodities that come in from other countries, there is very little overall reduction, and only at really certain historical points for other reasons than enforcement, than regular enforcement protocols.

So, the, if drug traffic and use are not really reduced, again, what accounts for the popularity of this program? And I've had to conclude, and I'm not the only one of course, that what accounts for the popularity of the program is its success at certain kinds of administrative social control, disenfranchisement of large cohorts of people, because it does not succeed at prohibiting drug traffic or use. So if it stays in place, it's got to be succeeding at something else, and as I say, I've concluded that what it succeeds at, and there's just nothing but evidence for this, is disenfranchisement and social control.

So, the kind of language that we're hearing from Trump, and also from Sessions, is extremely familiar. I had thought, when I was writing the book, and prior to the election, that we were on the road to some kind of marijuana reform, and I felt that that was good, for marijuana, but it effectively reclassifies marijuana as something more like alcohol. It doesn't really do anything to dismantle drug prohibition.

And then, of course, the election proved me wrong. We are not even necessarily on the road to liberalization of marijuana law and policy, and then again, I'm also right, there's still no real significant legal challenge to drug prohibition. What is so familiar, and so frightening to me, is the language with which Trump, and especially Sessions, speak, because it's so clear to me, Sessions is, like, re-enlivening, reactivating, Harry Anslinger. He, like Anslinger, is averse to knowledge, facts, science, and studies, any kind of information that might complicate his world view. And there's a lot more of it available now than there was during Anslinger's moment.

So Sessions is actually resisting a lot more intelligence, if you will, that's out there than Anslinger could possibly have done. But, similar to him, not interested, not interested in a more complex understanding of the reality of narcotics. So that's one thing that's familiar, but of course, what's also familiar and really, really, frightening, is the associations of drugs, narcotics, with certain kinds of social groups.

And I think the thing that frightens me the most right now is actually not about drugs per se, but the criminalization of immigration, which is borrowing directly from the logic of the criminalization of drugs and with exactly the same effects, that is to say that if you make a certain set of practices and commodities illegal, then all parties to it are breaking the law, and are subject to administrative social control.

So, of course, if you, as we've seen in the case of drugs, because drugs have been criminalized, all parties associated with them are potentially criminals, and we see that enforcement has very disproportionately targeted certain racial and immigrant groups. That is exactly what is happening around immigration right now. And so, I really, I think, this is again, for my purposes, why to study Anslinger so closely, is not because there's a whole lot of un-dug out information that needs to be revealed about him. I believe we know him pretty well.

But I think we still have a long way to go to being able to decode the kind of language, what people started during the campaign dog whistles. It's very important for us to be able to decode those dog whistles, and the kinds of language that Trump and Sessions are using around drugs, and around immigration, is absolutely reminiscent of Anslinger and with him, we'll have the effect of, and is probably intended to have the effect of targeting people of color and poor people, and of course undocumented people.

DEAN BECKER: We'll be right back after these brief messages.

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DEAN BECKER: All right, friends, once again you're listening to Cultural Baggage on Pacifica Radio, the Drug Truth Network. We're speaking with Alexandra Chasin, she's author of this great new book, Assassin Of Youth: A Kaleidoscopic History Of Harry J. Anslinger's War On Drugs.

Now Alexandra, I want to bring up that, you know, he was like the, I don't know, the first unit, that other drug czars have come along and they've basically cloned themselves, presented themselves in much the same way as Mister Anslinger. Am I right?

ALEXANDRA CHASIN: Yes, I think he absolutely set the mold. Although he himself was not much of an original. I think of him often as a kind of Hoover manque, or Hoover without the personality. What Anslinger was famous for was his bureaucratic efficiency, his administrative expertise, his zeal for rules, regulations, procedures, protocols, order forms, et cetera.

And that is part of what made him so viable over five different administrations, including Republican and Democratic presidents, where he was appointed and re-appointed, and it's partly because he knew how to keep his head down, and he knew how to do things quietly in the back room, and so he did not have the kind of style or personal flair of Hoover. But he did set a mold for a well-oiled bureaucracy of drug policy production.

I think he was a little bit less effective on the enforcement front, but in any case, in that way too he's been copied, certainly, by subsequent drug czars, and the logics around drugs, who uses them, why they're bad, the assumptions about how they spread, how threatening members of society use drugs to contaminate good members of society, how bad foreigners use drugs to undermine American national whatever it is, culture, integrity, safety, et cetera. All of those again are very familiar logics.

DEAN BECKER: Now, and Harry J. wasn't just drug czar to the United States, he tried to extend his reach, his efforts, around the world, too, did he not?

ALEXANDRA CHASIN: Well, he did that, he absolutely did, you're right, Dean, and he did it because he believed that if the United States was a signatory to treaties, that that would compel certain forms of domestic law in order to conform with the international treaties under which we had signed. And so he was very much in favor of signing onto such treaties, and he did a lot of his work internationally, yes, outside of the US.

It's also true that in his background, his first, his training and his first set of appointments for the federal government were abroad. He went abroad first to Europe at the end of World War One, with a legion there, he did some time in Hamburg, which he, although he was working in import and export and not specifically on drugs, he felt that he became aware there, he reported later of drug traffic, and his next two appointments were in Venezuela and the Bahamas.

He didn't enjoy living in those places, but he worked there for prohibition. And so he had gotten his start really on an international stage and in fact one of the things that, probably the thing that brought him to the attention of people in Washington and got him installed in there, was that, when he was in Nassau, in the Bahamas, he had a success in compelling France and England to sign on to a protocol that meant that both coming in and out of the Bahamas would have to say where they were going, would have to specify their destination.

And this, his reward for this little piece of bureaucratic success, was to be plucked out of the Bahamas and installed in Washington, which was where he really wanted to be anyway. So he had an international background, and even once he was installed in Washington, yes, as you say, he did go on to work the international stage very carefully.

DEAN BECKER: You mentioned the US being party to these treaties, these drug control treaties, and that's often used as a, what am I trying to say, a backstop for the people talking about the need to change these drug laws, and they always say oh, we can't, we're a party to these international treaties. We can get out of those in six months, as I understand it, is that true?

ALEXANDRA CHASIN: Well, it -- the, yes, the treaties are changeable, absolutely, and the other thing that I think is important to note right now, I see one sign of hope, which is coming from Colombia, where they have actually managed to work out a cease-fire and have been recognized by the Nobel Peace Prize for that work. The president made a very clear statement that the prohibition strategy has not worked in this hemisphere, and he speaks of the hemisphere in which we're also located. And I felt that there was some real hope there, it's the first time I've heard a very credible source, somebody with a fair amount of political power, saying that the prohibitionist strategy itself is a failure.

So, it's also true that there are other countries, of course, some countries in northern Europe, Portugal, where there are various experiments in the relative legalization of drugs and again, if Sessions were interested in information, he would see that the experiences there indicate that those relative legalization programs do not produce more crime. They do not ruin the economy, they don't produce more drug use. And so, or not significant, there's I think maybe very, very small increases are usually noted, that there are some models out there in other parts of the world for greater liberalization.

DEAN BECKER: Indeed. Portugal certainly being one of them. And I've got to throw this in. As of today, my fair city of Houston's going to stop arresting people for under four ounces of marijuana.

ALEXANDRA CHASIN: I've got to congratulate you. I believe that your work has contributed to that, and I really credit the county with taking on this approach. It's very exciting.

DEAN BECKER: Well, and it brings to mind that people are beginning to recognize that all of this propaganda and hysteria put forward by Anslinger and the generations of drug czars really has no nexus with reality, or very little nexus. And I think it's time for us to remember that, you know, these medical experts that the drug czars have, the first one was a veterinarian named Munch, and his name has been used as a derogatory phrase ever since, that we all get the munchies, and these people have no real standing, no content, no intelligence to bring forward, it's just hysteria being put forward time after time. Am I right?

ALEXANDRA CHASIN: Well, I certainly share that view, absolutely. I happen to believe that drugs are kind of a smoke screen. I don't believe these guys really know or care about drugs. I really think that they understand it as a way to organize, as I said, an administrative response to certain social groups.

Certainly, with everything we know now, it looks that way. I'm not sure Anslinger sat down with his cronies, and he did have cronies, and said what's the most racist mechanism we can put on the books to really drive ourselves to mass incarceration by the end of the century. But he might as well have.


ALEXANDRA CHASIN: And certainly with what we know now, it's very, it's very stark.

DEAN BECKER: Well, and let's keep in mind, that one of the original, I don't know, what's the word I'm looking for, one of the original positions put forward by that same Doctor James C. Munch was that he tried some marijuana. He said he turned into a bat and flew around the room, but when he came down he was okeh. Just a prime example of where this all came from, am I right?

ALEXANDRA CHASIN: Well, yeah, I mean, it is hysteria, it is many myths. One of the cases that Anslinger used to like to talk about the most was a case of a person named Victor Licata. He said Victor Licata, and he had this, a clipping about Licata in a set of files he called the Gore Files, he collected the worst evidence he could find for the case that marijuana produces criminal insanity and violence in individuals. And so he liked Victor Licata because Licata smoked a joint or two and then murdered five members of his family.

So he took this as evidence that marijuana made this person murder his family members, and struck from the record the fact that this person had been previously evaluated as psychotic. And so, this is, you know, I don't know what makes a person fly like a bat around the room, but it's not marijuana.

DEAN BECKER: No, it's not. Well, I tell you what, we're going to have to bring you back again for another discussion, because there's so much more in this great book. Friends, we've been speaking with Alexandra Chasin, author of Assassin Of Youth: A Kaleidoscopic History Of Harry J. Anslinger's War On Drugs. Alexandra, is there a website you might want to point folks towards? Or, closing thoughts, please.

ALEXANDRA CHASIN: I guess I would just close by saying, it's no time to rest. Sessions is a very serious threat, I think, and the reason to go back into the history, to arm ourselves for the current fight, is that we are seeing it regurgitated now. We are seeing it reactivated, and we really need to understand what are the codes and logics, what are the slightly hidden, but only slightly, and from some perspectives, hidden meanings and effects of the continuing war on drugs.

DEAN BECKER: I do want to thank Alexandra Chasin for this book, which will help us to rediscover the stupid history, the beginnings, of this drug war. I want you to please join us next week, we're going to have two great guests, Doctor Ethan Nadelmann, the director of the Drug Policy Alliance, will join us along with Canadian Senator Larry Campbell.

PROFESSOR JOK?BAS ŽIBURKUS, PHD: So my name is Doctor Jok?bas Žiburkus, and I'm associate professor at the University of Houston, studying epilepsy and currently also cannabinoids and the activity of cannabinoids in the brain, and we have created a company called CanTelligence, from cannabinoid intelligence, which is at the University of Houston Innovation Center.

This month, CanTelligence will have an event that will highlight brain awareness month, which is a worldwide campaign that brings together doctors, schools, and communities to celebrate the brain and its advancements in science. And we will be observing the brain awareness month by holding a discussion about the potential of cannabis as neuroprotective treatment for epilepsy and other neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

We will have a live event at the Innovation Center, which is on Thursday, March Ninth, from 4:30 to 6:30 pm, so if you want to look us up, it's CanTelligence, or Cannabinoid Intelligence, in Houston, and if you google that, the first link will lead you to our event. We're very happy that we will have Doctor Jaime Claudio Villamil, who is a professor of family medicine at the University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus, and he will share his experiences about working with medical cannabis patients, and creating a medical cannabis certification training program for physicians, which is currently adopted by the College of Physicians of Puerto Rico. So, it's a great event that will present science and also clinical practice on cannabinioids.

DEAN BECKER: I am the Reverend Dean Becker of the Drug Truth Network, standing in the river of reform, baptising drug warriors to the unvarnished truth. DrugTruth.net.

In closing, I remind you once again that because of prohibition you don't know what's in that bag. Please be careful.

To the Drug Truth Network listeners around the world, this is Dean Becker for Cultural Baggage and the unvarnished truth. Cultural Baggage is a production of the Pacifica Radio Network. Archives are permanently stored at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. And we are all still tap dancing on the edge of an abyss.