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Chapter 3 Killing Democracy; or, How the Drug War Drives the Prison-Industrial Complex Daniel Mark Larson On June 9, 1930, President Herbert Hoover signed H.R. 11143 into law, creating the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) and entrusting the Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, with the responsibility of establishing the first federal organization whose sole purpose was to rid the nation of illegal narcotics. When the bureau opened its doors on July 1, 1930, Mellon named former vice counsel with the State Department and recently displaced assistant commissioner of Prohibition, Harry J. Anslinger, as the FBN’s acting commissioner. Two weeks into his new position, the heat of this new charge was already singeing Anslinger, as South Carolina Senator Coleman Livingston Blease rose on the Senate floor, waved a tin of opium, and shouted “this was purchased only one block from where we are now deliberating.” The senator’s showboating reminded the new FBN director that “time was running out, if the newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics was to win and hold the respect of Congress and the public, it would have to act fast.” For the following thirty years, Anslinger was indeed fast and ferocious, as he carried out the mission of the FBN and turned the fight against drugs into a national obsession. In fact, Commissioner Anslinger shepherded the passage of a series of legislative bulwarks, spanning the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act up to the 1956 Narcotics Control Act. In addition, he provided spectacle-hunting authors with the juicy anecdotes that fueled Hollywood’s notorious 1936 drug exposé, Reefer Madness, which avows that “women cry for it, men die for it”; and he dabbled in his own forms of cultural production by writing fear-mongering articles such as “Marihuana: Assassin of Youth,” which linked “marijuana fiends” with “murder (and) degenerate sex attacks.” Thus, through more than thirty years of service, Anslinger pushed antidrug legislation and both supported and produced countless horror stories spread throughout the American public—as 74 much as any figure in our national history, Anslinger was the godfather of our current drug war.1 Nearly six decades after Senator Blease challenged Anslinger from the floor of the Senate, a similar event unfolded in our nation’s capital. In 1986 President Ronald Reagan declared that “today there’s a new epidemic: smokable cocaine, otherwise known as crack. It is an explosively destructive and often lethal substance, which is crushing its users. It is an uncontrolled fire.” Within a few years, Reagan’s dutiful vice president, George H. W. Bush, rose to the Oval Office, where he promptly recreated Senator Blease’s compelling episode by staging a symbolic extinguishing of the “uncontrollable fire” announced by his predecessor. And so, on September 5, 1989, President Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office and introduced the latest antidrug initiative: “This is the first time since taking the oath of office that I felt an issue was so important, so threatening, that it warranted talking directly with you, the American people. All of us agree that the gravest domestic threat facing our nation is drugs.” During his speech, the president held up a bag of crack cocaine that he claimed was purchased in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House. He pointed to the bag and asked, “Who is responsible? Let me tell you straight out, everyone who uses drugs, everyone who sells drugs, and everyone who looks the other way.” The embarrassing secret behind the president’s righteous theater was revealed shortly thereafter, when the Washington Post’s Michael Isikoff reported that upon the president’s requesting a bag of crack as a stage prop for his speech, Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA— the new and improved FBN) agents had to set up the drug buy in Lafayette Park by luring a drug dealer to the area. Like Anslinger and Reagan before him, President Bush was warning the nation of an impending drug epidemic, one so virulent that it reached even to the immediate neighborhood of the White House, yet drugs had to be imported into the neighborhood to support the president’s point. The president’s staged event illustrates one of the critical rhetorical strategies of the government’s response to drugs: arguing that drugs are not only ever-present but ever near, not only lurking within the nation but within your neighborhood. Like communists during the Cold War, when Senator Joe McCarthy and his allies forwarded claims that Reds were not only...


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