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Summary Article: Federal Bureau of Narcotics
from Encyclopedia of Drug Policy: "The War on Drugs" Past, Present, and Future

The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was the forerunner of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Prior to 1930, the U.S. Department of Treasury contained within it the Prohibition Unit for the enforcement of the Volstead Act of 1918, which declared alcohol illegal. Within the Prohibition Unit was the Narcotics Division. The Narcotics Division was responsible for the enforcement of the Harrison Act of 1914. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was established in 1930 by an act of Congress. It consolidated the Federal Narcotics Control Board and the Narcotics Division in the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics remained in the Treasury Department.

Two of the major reasons for the creation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics were the inefficiency and the level of corruption within the previous narcotics agencies with the Narcotics Division of the Department of Treasury. Through 1929 and 1930, there were various charges of use of narcotic drugs by agents, collusion between agents and narcotic drug dealers, financial mismanagement, and the padding and falsification of arrest reports. Eventually, a grand jury investigation was initiated in New York into the corruption and incompetence of the narcotics agencies. The investigation expanded into the activities of the son and the son-in-law of the chief of the Narcotics Division, Levi Nutt. Apparently, his son and son-in-law ran a law and accounting office that was involved with Arnold Rothstein, an underworld figure who was a notorious narcotic drug organizer and suspected of fixing the 1919 World Series in the infamous “Black Sox” scandal. Also, there was a legitimate concern that the enforcement of narcotics laws had to be separated from the prohibition of alcohol laws, because of the increasing problems and resistance to prohibition laws. Combined with the 1929 stock market crash, the time was ripe for a serious reorganization. Accordingly, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was formed, separate from the Prohibition Unit.

The first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was Harry J. Anslinger. Anslinger was an interesting person who, in only a decade, rose from being merely a clerk in the Foreign Service to commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. One of remarkable feats of Anslinger was that he remained commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from its inception in 1930 until 1962, a total of 32 years. Only J. Edgar Hoover of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had a longer career in a comparable federal law enforcement agency. In contrast to Hoover, however, Anslinger was a strong opponent of the Mafia, and his efforts and the work of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was instrumental in the deportation of Lucky Luciano in 1946. In contrast to the FBI, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was relatively small, having an average of approximately only 240 agents through 1962. This would change in 1968, when the Federal Bureau of Narcotics of the Department of Treasury and the Bureau of Drug Abuse Control of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, were merged to form the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in the Department of Justice. By the early 1970s, the number of narcotics agents had risen to over 1,300. In 1973 the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs became the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The Federal Bureau of Narcotics gained a certain degree of notoriety when, through the efforts of its commissioner, Harry J. Anslinger, it campaigned to have marijuana declared a menace to society. Marijuana was, at least initially, considered to be merely a nuisance in the campaign against narcotic drugs. When the Federal Bureau of Narcotics published its annual report in 1932, marijuana was considered a minor drug. However, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Anslinger were instrumental in obtaining the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which criminalized marijuana where the Harrison Act of 1914 had failed to address it. Anslinger of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics became notorious, if for nothing else, for this act. Some authorities believe that Anslinger manufactured a marijuana epidemic to obtain and maintain support for the existence of the Federal Narcotics Bureau. Ansligner was considered a hard liner when it came to narcotic drug law.

Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics did not always focus on the enforcement of the narcotics laws. Despite the small size of the bureau, it became involved in other aspects of secretive government business. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was involved with the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and with the Central Intelligence Agency after its founding. Anslinger, like J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, also expanded the work of his agency into the world of Hollywood because of its influence on society, resulting in the arrest for marijuana of such Hollywood luminaries as Robert Mitchum and opposition to certain movies the bureau found objectionable.

When it came to drug policy in the United States, Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics were probably the most influential government agency from 1930 to 1962. Not only were Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics instrumental in assuring the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, they had significant influence on the enactment of the Boggs Act of 1951 and the Narcotic Control Act of 1956, which significantly increased the penalties for the violation of narcotic drug laws.

See Also:

Anslinger, Harry, Boggs Act, Drug Enforcement Administration, Marihuana Tax Act (1937), Narcotic Control Act.

Further Readings
  • Belenko, Steven R. Drugs and Drug Policy in America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.
  • Carruth, B. and Rowe, T. C. Federal Narcotics Laws and the War on Drugs. New York: Routledge, 2006.
  • Erlen, Jonathon and Joseph, F. Spillane. Federal Drug Control: The Evolution of Policy and Practice. New York: Routledge, 2004.
  • Hamowy, Ronald, ed. Dealing With Drugs: Consequences of Government Control. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1987.
  • McWilliams, John C. The Protectors: Harry J. Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics 1930-62. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1990.
  • U.S. Department of Treasury. “Traffic in Opium and Other Dangerous Drugs for the Year Ended December 31, 1932.” Washington, DC: Government Printing Office,1932.
  • Walker, William O., III. Drug Control in the Americas,Rev. ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.
  • Plouffe, William C. Jr.
    Independent Scholar
    Copyright © 2011 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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