As I waited in the drowsy neon-lit customs line at JFK, I tried to remember precisely when the war on drugs started. In some vague way, I had a sense that it must have been with Richard Nixon in the 1970s, when the phrase was first widely used. Or was it with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, when “Just Say No” seemed to become the second national anthem?
But when I started to travel around New York City interviewing experts on drug policy, I began to get a sense that this whole story had, in fact, begun long before. The pledge to wage “relentless warfare” on drugs was, I found, first made in the 1930s, by a man who has been largely forgotten today—yet he did more than any other individual to create the drug world we now live in. I learned there are vast forgotten piles of this man’s paperwork at Penn State University—his diary, his letters, all his files—so I headed there on a Greyhound bus, and began to read through everything I could fi nd by and about Harry Anslinger. Only then did I begin to see who he really was—and what he means for us all.
In those files, I learned that at the birth of the war on drugs, there were three people who could be seen as its founding figures: if there was a Mount Rushmore for drug prohibition, it is their faces who would be carved into its mountainside, staring impassively back, slowly eroding. I chased the information about them across many more archives, and to the last remaining people to remember them. Now, three years later, after all I have learned, I find myself picturing these founding figures as they were when the drug war clouds first began to gather—as kids, scattered across the United States, not knowing what was about to hit them, or what they would achieve. Th at is where, it seems to me, this story begins.
In 1904, a twelve-year-old boy was visiting his neighbor’s farmhouse in the cornfi elds of western Pennsylvania when he heard a scream. It was coming from somewhere above him. Th is sound—desperate, aching—made him confused. What was going on? Why would a grown woman howl like an animal?
Her husband ran down the stairs and gave the boy a set of hurried instructions: Take my horse and cart into the town as fast as you can. Pick up a package from the pharmacy. Bring it here. Do it now.
The boy lashed at the horses, because he was certain that if he failed, he would return to fi nd a corpse. As soon as he fl opped through the door and handed over the bag of drugs, the farmer ran to his wife. Her screaming stopped, and she was calm. But the boy would not be calm about this—not ever again.
“I never forgot those screams,” he wrote yea rs later. From that moment on, he was convinced there was a group of people walking among us who may look and sound normal, but who could at any moment become “emotional, hysterical, degenerate, mentally defi cient and vicious” if they were allowed contact with the great unhinging agent: drugs.
When he grew into a man, this boy was going to draw together some of the deepest fears in American culture—of racial minorities, of intoxication, of losing control—and channel them into a global war to prevent those screams. It would cause many screams in turn. They can be heard in almost every city on earth tonight.
This is how Harry Anslinger entered the drug war.
On a different afternoon a few years earlier, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a wealthy Orthodox Jewish trader walked in on a scene that he could not understand. His three-year-old son was standing over his sleeping older brother holding a knife, ready to stab him. “Why, my son, why?” the trader asked. Th e little boy said that he hated his brother.
The boy was going to hate a lot of people in his life—almost everyone, in fact. He would later declare that “the majority of the human race are dubs and dumbbells and have rotten judgment and no brains.” He would plunge his knife into many people, as soon as he had gained enough wealth and power to get other people to wield the weapon. Normally a man with his personality type would end up in prison, but this little boy didn’t. He was handed an industry where his capacity for violence was not just rewarded, but required: the new market for illegal drugs in North America. When he was fi nally shot—separated by twenty blocks, countless killings, and many millions of dollars from his sleeping brother on that night—he was a free man.
This is how Arnold Rothstein entered the drug war.
On yet another af ernoon, in 1920, a six-year-old girl lay on the floor of a brothel in Baltimore listening to jazz records. Her mother was convinced this music was the work of Satan and wouldn’t let her hear a note of it at home, so the child off ered to perform small cleaning tasks for the madam of the local whorehouse on one condition: instead of being paid a nickel like the other kids, she would take her pay on this floor, in rapt hours left alone to listen. It gave her a feeling she couldn’t describe—and she was determined, one day, to create this feeling in other people.
Even after she was raped, and after she was pimped, and after she started to inject heroin to take away the pain, this music would still be there waiting for her.
This is how Billie Holiday entered the drug war.
When Harry and Arnold and Billie were born, drugs were freely available throughout the world. You could go to any American pharmacy and buy products made from the same ingredients as heroin and cocaine. Themost popular cough mixtures in the United States contained opiates, a new soft drink called Coca-Cola was made from the same plant as snortable cocaine, and over in Britain, the classiest department stores sold heroin tins for society women.
But they lived at a time when American culture was looking for an outlet for its swelling tide of anxiety—a real, physical object it could destroy, in the hope that this would destroy its fear of a world that was changing more rapidly than their parents and grandparents could ever have imagined. It settled on these chemicals. In 1914—a century ago— they resolved: Destroy them. Wipe them from the earth. Set yourself free.
As this decision was made, Harry and Arnold and Billie found themselves scattered across that first battlefi eld, and pressed into combat.
When Billie Holiday stood on stage, her hair was pulled back tightly, her face was round and shining in the lights, and her voice was scratched with pain. It was on one of these nights, in 1939, that she started to sing a song that would become iconic:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.
Before, black women had—with very few exceptions—been allowed on stage only as beaming caricatures, stripped of all real feeling. But now, here, she was Lady Day, a black woman expressing grief and fury at the mass murder of her brothers in the South—their battered bodies hanging from the trees.
“It was extremely brave, when you think about it,” her goddaughter Lorraine Feather told me. At that time, “every song was about love. You simply did not have a piece of music being performed at some hotel that was about the killing of people—about such a sordid and cruel fact. It was not done. Ever.” And to have an African American woman doing such a song? About lynching? But Billie did it because the song “seemed to spell out all the things that had killed” her father, Clarence, in the South.
The audience listened, hushed. Many years later, this moment would be called “the beginning of the civil rights movement.” Lady Day was ordered by the authorities to stop singing this song. She refused.
Her harassment by Harry’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics began the next day. Before long, he would play a crucial role in killing her.
Excerpt published courtesy of Bloomsbury.