Why Weed’s Biggest Villain Chased Billie Holiday to Death
Harry J. Anslinger retired 60 years ago from the now defunct Federal Bureau of Narcotics, but is still the ultimate boogey man of every pot smoker in the world – a kind of atavistic “human paraquat”, its overt racism and institutional cruelty remain at the heart of the ongoing global war on drugs.
Anslinger made a comeback last week with the release (on Hulu) of The United States vs. Billie Holiday, a new Lee Daniels (Push, Empire) film that tells the real story like America’s first “drug czar” the full Power used federal law enforcement agencies to target the legendary jazz singer for multiple arrests and eventually chase her into an early grave.
This photo was taken by Billie Holiday in September 1958, less than a year before her death. (AP photo / file)
The Fed Narcotics Agency has built racism into its work
Anchored in a brilliant, Golden Globe-winning performance of Andra Day in the title role, the story – based in part on Johann Hari’s insightful book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs – rightly casts Anslinger as the villain. But with the narrative centered on Holiday herself and a real undercover FBN agent tasked with taking it out, the head of the FBN doesn’t get much on-screen time.
That means that viewers, outraged by the events depicted, are likely to have many questions about the man behind this modern day Inquisition.
Harry Anslinger’s role
To speak of someone who once went on a trip to visit Harry Anslinger’s grave in rural Pennsylvania, smoke a joint, plant a seed, and “water” it – see a very special episode of my podcast “Great Moments In The.” Weed story ”- this is a piece of history that must be understood so that we do not repeat it endlessly.
For example, Anslinger’s beginning law enforcement was a leading proponent of the alcohol ban, a position he steadfastly supported despite the failure of every possible metric.
Moving from alcohol to drugs
By the time the war on alcohol ended in 1933, Anslinger had already enforced the existing bans on opioids and other narcotic drugs, including as a pioneer of a campaign against doctors who made support doses available to addicts. More than 20,000 doctors would be arrested on Anslinger’s orders, effectively ending the practice while pushing users (including Billie Holiday) to find drugs on the street and creating an incredibly lucrative new source of income for organized crime, right now as the end of the piracy era threatened to leave these gangsters up and dry.
Anslinger would eventually accept that the alcohol ban was a terrible failure. But instead of opening the taverns, he wanted to double up.
In 1928 he wrote a position paper calling for the Volstead Act to be expanded to address not only those who make, distribute and sell alcoholic beverages, but also those who buy and use the drug.
Six months in jail for buying a bottle
According to Harry’s plan, a first offense for illegal alcohol buying would result in a mandatory six-month prison term.
But then, two years later – when he felt a change in the prevailing political winds – he abruptly declared the ban a lost cause.
Although known, this was not his last attempt to ban something.
On January 14, 1937, Anslinger chaired a marijuana conference in Washington, DC, attended by government agencies and scientists.
At one point, the Treasury’s chief chemist asked what impact the hemp seed ban could have on the birdseed industry. Anslinger seriously replied that it might make cage birds stop singing.
Not that such a possibility would have changed the Prohibitionists’ minds.
The only doctor who spoke was against the ban
The men who banned marijuana were from the testimony of Dr. William C. Woodward of the American Medical Association, the only speaker who presented himself as a hostile witness, was also unfazed. Dr. Woodward, both a doctor and a lawyer, basically called the entire process bullshit:
We refer to newspaper publications on the prevalence of marijuana addiction. We are told that marijuana use causes crime. However, the Bureau of Prisons has provided no evidence of how many prisoners are addicted to the marijuana habit.
We have been told that school kids are great marijuana cigarette users. But no one was called from the children’s office to show the extent of the habit among children. The Children’s Office’s investigation shows that they had no opportunity to investigate and were unaware of it.
The 1937 law gave Anslinger the power to harass jazz artists
With the subsequent passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the federal ban on cannabis became the law of the country. Anslinger immediately used his new power to target two groups in particular – Mexican-American immigrants (including many who had recently arrived as war refugees) and African-American jazz musicians.
Before and even after the federal ban, a variety of jazz greats recorded weed torch songs like Reefer Man (Cab Calloway), If You’re a Viper (Fats Waller), Texas Tea Party (Benny Goodman), Muggle (Louis Armstrong), Give Me One Reefer (Bessie Smith), When I get low I get high (Ella Fitzgerald) and I feel high and happy (Gene Krupa).
A plan to bring the entire genre of music to a standstill
In a memo to his FBN sales force, Anslinger outlined a retaliatory plan by turning off the entire jazz scene at once. He wrote: Please prepare for any incidents in your jurisdiction where musicians violate marijuana laws. We will have a great national recap of all of these people in a single day.
But those plans failed, as described in Chasing the Scream:
The jazz world had a weapon that saved it: absolute solidarity. Anslinger’s men could hardly find anyone willing to sniff, and whenever one of them was blown up, they all interfered to save him. In the end, the finance department announced to Anslinger that he was wasting his time devoting himself to a community that couldn’t be broken. So he reduced his focus until he settled like a laser on a single target – perhaps the greatest jazz singer of all time.
He wanted to bring the whole blow of the federal government to this scourge of modern society, his public enemy # 1: Billie Holiday.
A childhood marked by trauma
After a childhood marked by extreme trauma, abuse, and heartbreak, Billie Holiday had developed a drug problem and was widely known as a user of heroin and other drugs. But that didn’t put a target on her back.
Harry Anslinger’s obsession with Billie Holiday began on the night of 1939 when she first sang Strange Fruit in public. The song was a searing indictment of lynching blacks as a means of asserting white supremacy and touched audiences, especially when sung with Holiday’s signature mix of pathos and defiance.
FBI: Stop singing “Strange Fruit” or whatever
Almost immediately, the FBN warned them not to sing Strange Fruit anymore or to face the consequences. She would continue doing it until her death.
Anslinger sent a black undercover agent to watch over Billie Holiday. The first time he attacked her by pretending to be delivering a telegram. Then he just followed her on.
“I had so many close conversations with her about so many things,” said Nark later. “She was the type who would make anyone likable because she was the loving type.”
Set up by her own husband
Meanwhile, Billy Holiday took steps to rid herself of another abusive man, her husband and manager Louis McKay, who physically assaulted her to the point where she sometimes had to tape her rib cage on to sing. When McKay, furious that Holliday had left him, learned that Anslinger was on her cock, he traveled to Washington, DC and met with the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
Together they planned to prepare Holiday for another bust.
According to Chasing the Scream:
Billie Holiday was sentenced to one year in a West Virginia prison where she was forced to have a cold turkey and work in the pigsty during the days. During all of her time behind bars, she did not sing a note. Upon her release, her cabaret artist’s license was revoked because listening to the public’s morale could harm. This meant she was not allowed to sing anywhere alcohol was served – including all jazz clubs in the United States.
Sadistic harassment even in the hospital
When she got out, Anslinger assigned the high profile case to his favorite agent, Colonel George White, who was known to be a true sadist. White prepared Holiday for her final bust by implanting her with drugs in the hospital.
She was then held as a virtual prisoner and received no adequate health care, visitors or even books to read. Protesters held signs saying “Let Lady Live” on the street in front of the hospital, but she was going to die right there in the hospital, surrounded by police officers.
Throughout the 1950s, as cannabis continued to spread underground, Anslinger successfully pushed for increasingly draconian punishments, including simple possession, by directly linking cannabis and communism during the height of red fear. It doesn’t matter that there isn’t credible evidence to back up his claims of a giant Moscow conspiracy to enslave America to marijuana addiction.
And so the war on drugs campaigned from the beginning to assert both white supremacy and the suppression of political differences – a double blow that continues to this day.
The history of the cannabis ban
Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of How to Smoke Pot (Correct): A High-profile Guide to Getting High “(2016 – Penguin / Random House) and co-host and co-creator of the podcast” Great Moments in “Weed Story With Abdullah and Bean. “Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.
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