Harrison Narcotics Tax Act

Harrison Narcotics Tax Act

The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act (Ch. 1, USStat|38|785) was a United States federal law that regulated and taxed the production, importation, and distribution of opiates. The act was proposed by Representative Francis Burton Harrison of New York and was approved on December 17, 1914. [cite web
title=Opium Throughout History
publisher=PBS Frontline

"An Act To provide for the registration of, with collectors of internal revenue, and to impose a special tax on all persons who produce, import, manufacture, compound, deal in, dispense, sell, distribute, or give away opium or coca leaves, their salts, derivatives, or preparations, and for other purposes." The courts interpreted this to mean that physicians could prescribe narcotics to patients in the course of normal treatment, but not for the treatment of addiction.

Although technically illegal for purposes of distribution and use, the distribution, sale and use of cocaine was still legal for registered companies and individuals.


International background

Following the Spanish-American War the U.S. took the Philippines. Confronted with a licensing system for opium addicts, a Commission of Inquiry was appointed to examine alternatives to this system. The Brent Commission recommended that narcotics should be subject to international control.

This proposal was supported by the United States Department of State and in 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt called for an international opium conference, the Shanghai Commission in 1909. In 1906 an imperial edict, had been published prohibiting the cultivation and smoking of opium in the Chinese Empire over a period of ten years. This was being implemented with greater success than had been anticipated [ [http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/bulletin/bulletin_1959-01-01_1_page006.htmlm UNOCD:The Shanghai Opium Commission] ] The British Empire had since the Opium war in the 1840s by military means forced China to allow a large import of opium from India.

A second conference was held at The Hague in 1911, and out of it came the first international drug control treaty, the International Opium Convention of 1912.

Domestic Background

In the 1800s opiates and cocaine were mostly unregulated drugs. In the 1890s the Sears & Roebuck catalogue, which was distributed to millions of Americans homes, offered a syringe and a small amount of cocaine for $1.50. Addicts of opium were very frequent. It has been estimated that one U.S. citizen in 400 was an addict of opium in 1914, and the number had increased swiftly for a number of years. [http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/History/e1910/worstfiend.htm Edward Marshall: UNCLE SAM IS THE WORST DRUG FIEND IN THE WORLD, New York Times 1911] ] The opium addicts were mostly women who were prescribed and dispensed legal opiates by physicians and pharmacist for ”female problems,” probably mostly pain at menstruation, or white men and Chinese at the Opium dens. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of these addicts were women. [http://www.nida.nih.gov/PDF/DARHW/033-052_Kandall.pdf Stephen R. Kandall, M.D.:Women and Addiction in the United States—1850 to 1920] ]

:"Of all the nations of the world, the United States consumes most habit-forming drugs per capita. Opium, the most pernicious drug known to humanity, is surrounded, in this country, with far fewer safeguards than any other nation in Europe fences it with." :-- Dr. Hamilton Wright, United States first Opium Commissioner, New York Times, 1911

At the beginning of the 20th century, cocaine began to be linked to crime. In 1900, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an editorial stating, "Negroes in the South are reported as being addicted to a new form of vice ndash that of 'cocaine sniffing' or the 'coke habit.'" Some newspapers later claimed cocaine use caused blacks to rape white women and was improving their pistol marksmanship. Chinese immigrants were blamed for importing the opium-smoking habit to the U.S. The 1903 blue-ribbon citizens' panel, the Committee on the Acquirement of the Drug Habit concluded, "If the Chinaman cannot get along without his dope we can get along without him". By 1914 forty-six states had regulations on cocaine and twenty-nine states had laws against opium, morphine, and heroin. cite book
last =Levinson | first =Martin H. | year =2002 | title =The Drug Problem: A New View Using the General Semantics Approach | publisher =Greenwood Publishing Group | id =027596129X
p. 14-15. Mentions New York Times article about drug crazed blacks.] cite book
year =September 1902
title = [http://books.google.com/books?id=eEpLAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA567&lpg=PA567&dq=%22ommittee+on+the+Acquirement+of+the+Drug+Habit%22&source=web&ots=Iwx1Z8fx2T&sig=KbKmd7XfL8FqN5uEdJad9-ywTFY&hl=en#PPA572,M1 Proceedings of the American Pharmaceutical Association at the Fifteenth Annual Meeting]
p. 572 (Google Print) ]

Dr. Hamilton Wright, appointed by Theodore Roosevelt, stated that "cocaine is often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the Negroes of the South and other sections of the country," even though there was no evidence to support this claim.fact Wright also stated that "one of the most unfortunate phases of smoking opium in this country is the large number of women who have become involved and were living as common-law wives or cohabitating with Chinese in the Chinatowns of our various cities". cite book
last =Wetherington | first =Cora L. | coauthors =Alan I Leshner | year =1999
title =Drug Addiction Research & the Health of Women | publisher =DIANE publishing
id =0788180533
Wetherington states that the 1909 Shanghai Commission made this comment. ] cite journal
first = Evan | last = Thomas | year =1986 | month =September 15 | title =America's Crusade
journal =Time Magazine
url =http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,962287-7,00.html
A 1910 federal survey reported that "cocaine is often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the Negroes in the South and other sections of the country. Southern sheriffs believed cocaine even rendered blacks impervious to .32-cal. bullets (as a result many police departments switched to .38-cal.)." ]


In 1914, the Senate considered the Harrison bill. The act was supported by the Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan who urged that the law be passed to fulfill the obligation of the new international treaty.

Several authors have argued that the debate was merely to regulate trade and collect a tax. However, the committee reportCommittee on Finance (Ways and Means Committee, Senate Reports, vol. 1, of the 63rd Congress, 2nd session on Senate Bill 6552, report #258, pp. 3-4)] prior to the debate on the house floor and the debate itself, discussed the rise of opiate use in the United States. Harrison stated that "The purpose of this Bill can hardly be said to raise revenue, because it prohibits the importation of something upon which we have hitherto collected revenue." Later Harrison stated, "We are not attempting to collect revenue, but regulate commerce." House representative Thomas Sisson stated, "The purpose of this bill--and we are all in sympathy with it--is to prevent the use of opium in the United States, destructive as it is to human happiness and human life."cite book
last =Rowe
first =Thomas C.
year = 2006
title = Federal Narcotics Laws and the War on Drugs: Money Down a Rat Hole
publisher = Haworth Press
id = 0789028085
p. 14-15]

The drafters played on fears of “drug-crazed, sex-mad negroes” and made references to Negroes under the influence of drugs murdering whites, degenerate Mexicans smoking marijuana, and “Chinamen” seducing white women with drugs. cite journal
year =2001
month =July 26
title =How did we get here?
journal =The Economist
url = http://www.economist.com/surveys/displaystory.cfm?story_id=E1_SDGVRP
"The drafters of the Harrison Act of 1914, the first federal ban on non-medical narcotics, played on fears of “drug-crazed, sex-mad negroes”."] cite journal
first =Joseph D.
last =McNamara
year =2004
title =The Drug War:The American Junkie
journal = The Hoover Digest
url =http://www.hoover.org/publications/digest/3042936.html
] Dr. Hamilton Wright, testified at a hearing for the Harrison Act. Wright alleged that drugs made blacks uncontrollable, gave them superhuman powers and caused them to rebel against white authority. Dr. Christopher Koch of the State Pharmacy Board of Pennsylvania testified that "Most of the attacks upon the white women of the South are the direct result of a cocaine-crazed Negro brain". cite book
last =Cockburn
first =Alexander
authorlink =
coauthors =Jeffrey St. Clair
year =1998
title =Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press
publisher =Verso
id =1859841392

Before the Act was passed, on February 8, 1914 The New York Times published an article entitled "Negro Cocaine 'Fiends' Are New Southern Menace:Murder and Insanity Increasing Among Lower-Class Blacks" by Edward Huntington Williams which reported that Southern sheriffs had increased the caliber of their weapons from .32 to .38 to bring down Negroes under the effect of cocaine.


The act appears to be concerned about the marketing of opiates. However a clause applying to doctors allowed distribution "in the course of his professional practice only." This clause was interpreted after 1917 to mean that a doctor could not prescribe opiates to an addict, since addiction was not considered a disease. A number of doctors were arrested and some were imprisoned. The medical profession quickly learned not to supply opiates to addicts. In 1919, the Supreme Court ruled in "Doremus" that the Harrison Act was constitutional and in "Webb" that physicians could not prescribe narcotics solely for maintenance.

The impact of diminished supply was obvious by mid-1915. A 1918 commission called for sterner law enforcement. Congress responded by tightening up the Harrison Act-the importation of heroin for any purpose was banned in 1924. After other complementary laws (for ex. implementing the Uniform State Narcotic Act), and other actions by the government the number of addicts of opium started to decrease fast from 1925 to a level that in 1945 that was about one tenth of the level in 1914.

The use of the term 'narcotics' in the title of the act to describe not just opiates but also cocaine — which is a central nervous system stimulant, not a narcotic — initiated a precedent of frequent legislative and judicial misclassification of various substances as 'narcotics'. Today, law enforcement agencies, popular media, the United Nations, other nations and even some medical practitioners can be observed applying the term very broadly and often pejoratively in reference to a wide range of illicit substances, regardless of the more precise definition existing in medical contexts.


The Act's applicability in prosecuting doctors who prescribe narcotics to addicts was successfully challenged in "Linder v. United States" in 1925, as Justice McReynolds ruled that the federal government has no power to regulate medical practice.


External links

* [http://www.erowid.org/psychoactives/law/law_fed_harrison_narcotics_act.shtml The Harrison Narcotics Act (1914) at Erowid.com]
*cite book
last =Musto
first =David F.
year =1999 (3rd edition)
title =The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control
publisher =Oxford University Press
id = 0195125096

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