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Did America's First Drug Czar Secretly Supply Dope to Sen. Joe McCarthy?

During the 1950s Red Scare, America's first drug czar fed the opiate addiction of America's most feared senator.


Joe McCarthy, the late senator from Wisconsin who built his reputation by whipping up the anti-Communist hysteria sweeping America at the beginning of the Cold War, has long been widely viewed as an object lesson in the abuse of power. His style of politics—demagoguery, paranoia and, worst of all, witch-hunts—has been named McCarthyism, and in recent years some politicians have emerged who would wear the label proudly. For people who have struggled with addiction, however, McCarthy—an alcoholic and opiate addict—offers a provocative question about the limits of our own anti-stigma views.

By the peak of his power in 1953, McCarthy's allegations of “Communist subversion” had wrecked havoc on virtually every level of government—from scores of federal employees whose careers were ruined by unfounded charges of “treason” to decorated war heroes to highly respected statesmen. McCarthy even characterized the entire Democratic Party as the “party of treason.”

Not surprisingly, there is a long tradition of right-wing pols and pundits who see McCarthy as a misunderstood hero. Sen. Ted Cruz, the newly elected Tea Party Republican from Texas, has already won widespread comparisons to McCarthy for his innuendo-laced pronouncements about Democratic members of Congress and presidential appointees such as Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary. Cruz has  welcomed the criticism as “a sign that perhaps we’re doing something right.” In fact, McCarthy seems to be almost a role model for Cruz, who in 2010 upbraided his alma mater, Harvard Law School, for harboring a dozen communists on its faculty.

A larger-than-life figure of enduring influence, the story of Joe McCarthy would seem to offer little in the way of surprises. The fact that he suffered from severe alcoholism is well known. But the fact that by many accounts, he was also addicted to opiates remains almost as hidden as it was during his lifetime.

That Capitol Hill was rife with drinking and even drugging was an open secret in the 1950s, but the “private” lives of political figures remained largely unpublicized. This protected McCarthy’s favorable reputation with the American public from the stinging stigma attached to alcoholism and drug addiction. (There is some speculation that his opiate addiction was the result of either treatment for “chronic pain” or treatment by sympathetic doctors to help fortify the hangover-hobbled senator to get him through the day. But he may have had a personality disorder; a friend remarked once that he "operates in his own moral universe.")

Yet even in the current age of celebrity snort-and-tell publicity, when nothing seems capable of shocking, the method in which McCarthy’s drugs were supplied is, well, shocking.

According to the country’s first de-facto drug czar, Harry Anslinger, McCarthy’s addiction was enabled by the federal government. Anslinger, who served as chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962, is credited with successfully demonizing “marijuana” as causing addiction and insanity, murder and mayhem. More than any other political figure, Anslinger was responsible for criminalizing opiates and its users. And his word was gospel when it came to the country’s nascent war on drugs.

In his 1961 memoir, The Murderers, Anslinger wrote about finding out, in the 1950s, that a prominent senator (whom he left unnamed) was addicted to morphine. When confronted by Anslinger, the politician refused to stop, even daring Anslinger to reveal his addiction, saying it would cause irreparable harm to the “Free World.”  Anslinger responded to this gambit by securing the lawmaker a steady supply of dope from a Washington, DC, pharmacy. (Morphine taken by prescription was, then as now, legal.)

Anslinger’s acquiescence was a testament to just how feared McCarthy was in his heyday. Few dared to speak above a whisper about his evident alcoholism. “[He] went on for some time, guaranteed his morphine because it was underwritten by the Bureau," Anslinger wrote. "On the day he died I thanked God for relieving me of my burden."

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