On Wednesday – the same day that New York approved emergency access to medical marijuana – New York City activists gathered in a Chelsea loft to hear Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, explain why the drug war hasn’t worked.

He began, though, not by talking about the modern drug war, but by telling a story that started more than three decades earlier.  

“In 1939 seven blocks away from where we are now,” Hari said, “Billie Holiday walked on stage in a hotel where she wasn’t even allowed to walk through the front door. And she sang a song. It was called ‘Strange Fruit.’”

That was “the musical starting gun for the civil right movement,” but at the time it attracted unwanted attention from one Harry Anslinger.

For more than three decades, Anslinger was the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He was the man responsible for waging the war on drugs before it was called the war on drugs.

According to Hari, he had a “really intense hatred” of drug addicts and of African Americans — and Holiday was both.

The same night the rising jazz great sang “Strange Fruit,” Hari said, Holiday got a warning from Anslinger: Stop singing that song.

But Holliday didn’t stop, and Anslinger stayed true to his threat.

He hired someone to follow her and, in 1947, the singer was arrested on drug charges and sentenced to 18 months in prison. After her release, she couldn’t get the license she needed to perform in places that sold alcohol.

“This is what we are doing to addicts all over the world,” Hari said. “We are putting barriers between them and their ability to reconnect.”

Holiday started using again and by the late 1950s, years of drug and alcohol abuse took their toll: She was diagnosed with liver cancer.

Hari
Johann Hari in 2011, via Wikimedia Commons

Hospitalized in 1959, she was arrested and handcuffed to her deathbed when cops raided her hospital room. She died, but Hari doesn’t think Anslinger — who later became an opiate addict himself — came out on top.

“Right now people all over the world are listening to Billie Holiday and they’re feeling stronger and nobody fucking remembers Harry Anslinger,” he said.

That’s not entirely true, though. As Hari recounted, at least one person remembers Anslinger: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

In the course of his research, Hari visited Maricopa County — and found a picture of Anslinger hanging on the notorious sheriff’s wall.

In that same visit, Hari passed a chain gang of female Maricopa County inmates digging graves, wearing shirts the read “I Am a Drug Addict” and trying to ignore the jeers from passersby.

According to Hari, that’s the exact opposite of how addiction should be addressed, because it’s based on a misunderstanding about how addiction works in the first place.

There’s an assumption that heroin causes heroin addiction which means that forced sobriety is the solution, Hari said.

He doesn’t think that’s accurate, though.

Early addiction experiments showed that a rat put in a cage with a bottle of drug-laced water and a bottle of regular water would quickly become a drug addict, Hari said. That seemed to reinforce the idea that the drugs were the problem.

In the 1970’s, Bruce Alexander tried a different experiment. He gave the rats the tools for happy, fulfilling rat lives instead of putting them in rat solitary confinement. They had the drug water and the regular water, but they also had toys and — most importantly — rat friends.

“It’s basically heaven for rats. It’s called Rat Park,” Hari said.

“This is the fascinating thing: In Rat Park, they don’t like the drug water. They almost never use it. None of them ever use it compulsively, none of them ever overdose.”

Addiction, Hari said, is not about drugs; it’s about the cage.

“We’ve got to change the cage, we’re living in a shitty cage,” he said.

Hari believes that, like the rats, humans need to bond with the others in their cage.

“But when you can’t do that because you’re traumatized, or isolated or beaten down by life, you will bond or connect with something that gives you some sense of meaning [and] that might be heroin,” Hari said.

“For 100 years we have been singing war songs about addicts … we should have been singing love songs to them all along,” he said.

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One thought on “Johann Hari on Billie Holiday, Harry Anslinger, and the War on Drugs

  1. I enjoyed your blog. I’ve reading everything I can find about Billie Holiday and “Strange Fruit,” but I have never run across this story about Anslinger and Billie Holiday. Thanks for sharing this story.

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