BILL BERKOWITZ FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
"On the Media's" Bob Garfield recently reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions "signaled his eagerness to rejoin the nation's old-school-style War on Drugs, by hiring a former beat cop, turned federal prosecutor, Stephen H. Cook," who last year, at a criminal justice panel at The Washington Post, maintained that "The federal criminal justice system simply is not broken. In fact, it's working exactly as designed."
In his 2015 book, Chasing the Scream; The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, British writer and journalist Johann Hari dived deeply into the origins of America's War on Drugs, a story that dates back more than a century ago, beginning with the Harrison Act in 1914 -- which banned cocaine and heroin -- and whose origins were steeped in racism: "The main reason given for banning drugs -- the reason obsessing the men who launched this war -- was that the Blacks, Mexicans, and Chinese were using these chemicals, forgetting their place, and menacing white people."
In 1931, the relatively unknown Harry Anslinger, who had been appointed the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics a year earlier, amped up his profile by ordering raids on doctors -- previously exempt from the Harrison Act -- which ultimately put an end to the legal prescription of drugs to addicts in the US. At the time Anslinger took office, Hari writes, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was "a tiny agency, buried in the gray bowels of the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C.," and may have been on the brink of extinction.
Essentially Anslinger's animus in enforcing anti-drug laws resulted in a thriving illicit drug industry, a concomitant growth in drug entrepreneurs/organized crime, street crime committed by addicts, massive arrests -- mostly of small-time users -- and imprisonment. Hari pointed out that: "Before drugs were criminalized, the most popular way to consume opiates was through very mild opiate teas, syrups and wines…But within a few years of the introduction of prohibition, these milder forms of the drug had vanished. They were too bulky to smuggle…That's when coca tea was replaced by powder cocaine, and Mrs Winslow's Soothing Syrup was replaced by injectable heroin."
The Case of Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday (nee Eleanora Fagan), was a legendary great jazz and blues singer, who had enough personal difficulties of her own to deal with. Hari argues that when she died in July 1959, it was a result of being hounded by Anslinger's agents, and denied treatment for cirrhosis of the liver by racist anti-drug US government officials.
Hari chose to open Chasing the Scream with a story about how Holiday was targeted for persecution by Anslinger. "Jazz was the opposite of everything Harry Anslinger believed in," Hari writes. "It is improvised, relaxed, free-form. It follows its own rhythm. Worst of all, it is a mongrel music made up of European, Caribbean and African echoes, all mating on American shores. To Anslinger, this was musical anarchy and evidence of a recurrence of the primitive impulses that lurk in black people, waiting to emerge. 'It sounded,' his internal memos said, 'like the jungles in the dead of night.' Another memo warned that 'unbelievably ancient indecent rites of the East Indies are resurrected' in this black man's music. The lives of the jazzmen, he said, 'reek of filth.'"
For Anslinger, marijuana was "why jazz music sounded so freakish." Anslinger particularly hated popular jazz musicians like Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk, and he wanted to see them all jailed. He instructed his agents: "Please prepare all cases in your jurisdiction involving musicians in violation of the marijuana laws. We will have a great national round-up arrest of all such persons on a single day. I will let you know what day." His advised his drug-raiding men to "Shoot first."
In an interview with Naomi Klein on Democracy Now, Hari explained how the government hounded Holiday, in part because she was a drug addict, and in part because she had the audacity to publicly sing the powerful anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit." A Jewish schoolteacher, Abel Meeropol, who was writing under the name Lewis Allan, wrote the song. (Meeropol would later adopt Robert and Michael Rosenberg, the sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg who were executed after being convicted of being Communist spies.)
Hari told Klein that Holiday's goddaughter, Lorraine Feather, told him: "You've got to understand how shocking it was to have an African-American woman singing a song against" -- she wasn't allowed to walk through the front door of that hotel. She had to go through the service elevator. So to stand up in front of a white audience and do that was pretty -- a time when almost all popular songs were like "P.S. I Love You," right? And that night she was told, according to her biographer, Julia Blackburn, by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 'Stop singing this song.' Right? The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was run by a crazy racist called Harry Anslinger, a man who was regarded as a crazy racist by the crazy racists at the time. …. And she basically said, "Screw you, I'm going to sing my song."
According to Hari, Holiday's singing of "Strange Fruit" set off Anslinger. He had agents stalk her, she's arrested, sent to prison, and when she's released, she has her license to perform -- needed where alcohol was served -- revoked.
Hari: "And Billie Holiday sinks back into addiction. She collapses when she's in her early forties. She's taken to hospital in New York, and she says to one of her friends that the agents aren't -- Anslinger's men aren't finished with her. She says, 'They're going to kill me in there. Don't let them. They're going to kill me.' They handcuff her to the bed. … [S]he was diagnosed with liver cancer. They knew that. I interviewed the last surviving guy who was in that room. They handcuffed her to the bed. They didn't let any of her friends in to see her. They took away her record player and her candies. One of her friends manages -- she went into withdrawal. One of her friends managed to get her prescribed methadone, and she started to recover. And 10 days later, they cut off the methadone, and she died."
"Harry Anslinger was a kind of genius at conducting the fears and anxieties of his time through drugs," Hari told Klein. "But the history of the war on drugs, if you think about it in the long arc of human history, it belongs in the story of symbolic wars, where we go to war against -- we try to embody one of our fears in an object and go to war against it, like the Crusades or the witchcraft crazes."
And now we've got Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recently declared: "We have too much of a tolerance for drug use. Psychologically, politically, morally. We need to say as Nancy Reagan said, "Just say no." Don't do it."
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper came out of a recent meeting with Sessions in Washington, D.C, and he told "The Cannabist" "that the former Alabama senator seemed unlikely to crack the whip on states that have legalized marijuana in some capacity," despite the fact that Sessions is vehemently opposed to legalizing marijuana, Newsweek reported.
"Under the Cole memorandum, which was introduced in 2013, marijuana consumers, producers and businesses in legal states are safe from federal prosecution as long as they're in compliance with state cannabis laws," Newsweek's Janice Williams reported. "During a press conference in March, Sessions acknowledged that the rule was valid but said he was considering implementing some of his own ideas within the law.
"The Cole memorandum set up some policies under President Obama's Department of Justice about how cases should be selected in those states and what would be appropriate for federal prosecution, much of which I think is valid," Sessions said. "I may have some different ideas myself in addition to that, but essentially we're not able to go into a state and pick up the work that the police and sheriffs have been doing for decades," he said at the time.
How long Sessions, Kelly, and Cook -- all vigorous opponents of marijuana use -- will stick by that dictum remains to be seen.