It’s the heart of summer in Phoenix, 2012, as I pull into the strip mall parking lot. At the end of the strip mall is a bar and inside the bar, in about an hour, I’ll be watching the rap duo Potluck perform. By now, I’m deep into cannabis culture as a personality trait and was introduced to Potluck by my then-boyfriend. They fit well with my predilection for underground, cannabis-centric artists at the time; hailing from Humboldt County, Potluck’s discography was almost exclusively focused on growing and consuming cannabis. The entire venue smelled exactly the way you imagine it would, and I giggled when a group of fans “covertly” – we thought – passed a joint around the open patio before the show. The show was great, and I walked away with a ton of fun memories and an autographed “Stoner Bitch” tank top.
Now, it’s not uncommon to find artists whose entire image revolves around cannabis or cannabis culture. I mean, look at Snoop Dogg, who’s now doing lighter advertisements with Martha Stewart that not so subtly hint at smoking cannabis, or the myriad of other celebrities now touting their own luxury cannabis brands. Promoting cannabis as part of your life, brand or image has become commonplace, especially among musicians, but this wasn’t always the norm. So how did we end up in a place where I could plan an entire evening around what was essentially a big weed celebration concert at a local bar when 30 years ago it was unlikely you’d hear a song overtly about cannabis on the radio?
Cannabis, Jazz and Harry J Anslinger
The emergence of cannabis culture in music can be roughly traced back to the rise of jazz in America in the early 20th century. Jazz legend Louis Armstrong famously partook throughout his career, and once said “We always looked at pot as a sort of medicine, a cheap drunk and with much better thoughts than one that’s full of liquor.” His instrumental piece “Muggles” – a jazz era slang term for cannabis, not a non-wizard – is said to be a sort of ode to Armstrong’s cannabis highs. You might not imagine jazz musicians of the early 20th century to be be-boppin’ about cannabis on stage, but take for example 1940’s “Junker’s Blues” by Champion Jack Dupree with lyrics like “Say goodbye, goodbye to whiskey / Lord and so long to gin / I just want my reefer / I just want to feel high again” or Cab Calloway’s 1932 song bluntly titled “Reefer Man”. Cannabis is often used as a creative tool for artists, and even the Reddit page I ended up on while researching had modern jazz musicians praising cannabis for improving their ability to improvise, a key element of the genre.
Jazz was born in New Orleans, a southern city with a diversity of culture that was unlike many others in the United States at the time. According to the National Museum of American History’s website “African-American musical traditions mixed with others and gradually jazz emerged from a blend of ragtime, marches, blues, and other kinds of music.” A combination of African, European, and Caribbean sounds birthed in an American city, jazz was a reflection of a diversifying nation, and no one seemed to hate this more than Harry J Anslinger.
When I approach pieces like this, my brain visualizes them like a spider’s web. Everything is so interconnected that untangling the web to present you with a linear story can be difficult at times. This is one of those instances, and when I told my partner about this he presented me with a surprisingly simple solution; approach it like a spider. So I’m attempting to lay the foundational threads for the web that is jazz, cannabis, and one of our least-favorite racists, Harry J Anslinger.
Harry J Anslinger was the founding Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) in 1930, in the wake of failed alcohol prohibition and the early days of jazz’s popularity. The intersection of jazz, cannabis, and Anslinger’s vow to “eradicate all drug use, everywhere” combined with his extreme racism to create a sort of perfect storm.
Jazz served as a sort of proof for Anslinger that cannabis was, as he had said before, an “addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death.” It sounded to him “like the jungles in the dead of night” and that the lives of jazzmen “reek of filth” according to his internal memos. Other memos suggest that there were other agents at the FBN who felt the same about this new musical style that they didn’t understand, one saying “music hath charms, but not this music” and another that “many among the jazzmen think they are playing magnificently when under the influence of marihuana but they are actually becoming hopelessly confused and playing horribly.” Many jazz musicians were outspoken rebels and some struggled with drug and alcohol addictions, painting an even bigger target on the community for Anslinger.
In 1947, Anslinger had agents around the country attempting to catch various jazz performers violating cannabis laws and at one point sent out a letter that read “Dear Agent So-and-so, 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.” Much to Anslinger’s dismay, his agents hadn’t had much luck infiltrating these various communities. Their solidarity and unwillingness to turn on each other gave his agents virtually nothing to work with. One response, from an agent in Hollywood, read “Dear Commissioner Anslinger, I have your letter of October 24. Please be advised that the musical community here in Hollywood is unionized and very tight, we have been unable to get an informant inside it. So, at the present time, we have no cases involving musicians in violation of the marihuana laws.”
According to a speech by Professor of Law Charles Whitehead in 1995, Anslinger made an attempt to secure more agents at a Senate Committee in 1948. He needed these agents because there was a group of people violating the cannabis laws and he needed to stop them. When asked who, Anslinger replied “Musicians. And I don’t mean good musicians, I mean the jazz type.” According to Whitehead’s speech, the public response to this statement was overwhelming, with the Department of the Treasury receiving fifteen thousand letters in 3 days, many of which were unopened when Prof. Whitehead was doing his research. One of the unopened letters read “Dear Commissioner Anslinger, I applaud your efforts to rid America of the scourge of narcotics addiction. If you are as ill-informed about that as you are about music, however, you will never succeed.”
Five days after this statement was made, Anslinger had a 10 am appointment with the Secretary of the Treasury. Whitehead said he doesn’t know what went on in this meeting but “from that appointment on, no mention is ever made again of the great national round-up arrest of musicians in violation of the marijuana laws all on a single day, much to the delight of the agents who never had any heart for it in the first place.”
The free-form improvisation, multicultural roots, and diversity of jazz represented everything that Harry J Anslinger hated and feared throughout his tenure as Commissioner of the FBN, but the unflinching community of fans and musicians stood in the face of federal agents, a sentiment I see reflected all throughout the history of cannabis culture. While jazzmen of the era used cannabis to inspire and invigorate their art and performance, Anslinger saw proof of the corrupting and “Satanic” influences of cannabis. Seemingly robbed of his ability to target jazz musicians as a whole, Anslinger focused on who is probably his most well-known target, Billie Holiday.
The United States Vs. Billie Holiday
In 1939 Billie Holiday performed her now-classic “Strange Fruit” for the first time at the jazz club Café Society in New York City. Café Society was the first fully integrated jazz club managed by Barney Josephson. Holiday and Josephson are said to have crafted a masterful unveiling of the haunting poem-turned-song, written by Jewish school teacher Abel Meeropol. As the last song in the set, the club lights dimmed and a single spotlight would illuminate Holiday’s face, demanding the room’s attention as she sang of the heart-wrenching image of lynchings in the south. If you haven’t heard the song, I highly recommend giving it a listen.
It was sometime shortly after this first performance that Holiday received a warning from Commissioner Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics; she was never to sing that song again. Remember, Anslinger was considered an “extreme” racist by his colleagues in the 1920s and 30s, and Billie Holiday was a black jazz musician singing to integrated audiences about the brutal reality of the lynchings of black people, so while it may seem odd to us that a federal narcotics agency would issue this sort of warning, Anslinger was more than willing to wield his power in an attempt to silence those he despised.
Holiday may have been a cannabis user, but she struggled primarily with heroin and alcohol addiction, information that had made its way back to Anslinger. When she also flatly refused to be silent on racism or stop performing Strange Fruit, Anslinger enlisted black FBN agent Jimmy Fletcher to tail Lady Day, as she was sometimes called. As much as he hated employing a black agent, he knew that a white agent in the neighborhoods Lady Day frequented would stick out like a sore thumb. Some have speculated that Fletcher may have fallen in love with Holiday, but at the very least he seemed to have treated her with some level of kindness.
In 1947, the apartment of Billie Holiday’s brother-in-law was raided and Holiday was arrested and put on trial for possession of narcotics. “It was called ‘The United States of America versus Billie Holiday,” she remembered in her 1956 memoir Lady Sings the Blues, “and that’s just the way it felt.” She was sentenced to one year, and when she was released in 1948, the government refused to renew her cabaret performer’s license – the license that was required for her to perform at any venue serving alcohol. Commissioner Anslinger had recommended this “on the grounds that listening to her might harm the morals of the public,” according to her memoir.
Anslinger would go on to harass Billie Holiday up until her literal death, notoriously ordering her arrest while she was hospitalized for liver disease. Agents claimed that they had found an eighth of an ounce of heroin hanging on a nail on the wall, six feet from the bottom of her bed – in a spot Billie was unable to reach. And so Billie was arrested, fingerprinted, and had her mugshot taken in her hospital bed. She was refused visitors and medication for withdrawal and threatened to be taken straight to jail if she didn’t give up her dealers. Billie Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan, died at age 44 with police officers at her hospital door and $750 strapped to her leg – it was all the money she had and she’d planned to give it to the nurses as a thank you for taking care of her.
I want to leave you with a quote from Billie Holiday’s memoir that I think perfectly showcases everything wrong with Anslinger, and subsequently Ronald Reagan’s, war on drugs. “Imagine if the government chased sick people with diabetes, put a tax on insulin and drove it into the black market, told doctors they couldn’t treat them,” she wrote, “then sent them to jail. If we did that, everyone would know we were crazy. Yet we do practically the same thing every day in the week to sick people hooked on drugs.”