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Harrison Narcotics Act

Date: 1914 
From: Encyclopedia of American History: The Emergence of Modern America, 1900 to 1928, Revised Edition, vol. VII.

Passed by Congress in 1914, the Narcotics Act was the culmination of two important forces in American life—a Progressive Era effort to reduce drug addiction in the United States and the forces that promoted a new American empire abroad. In the final decades of the 19th century, a growing number of Americans were gripped by the fear that narcotic addiction was undermining society Influenced by new theories regarding the ways in which drugs affected the body and mind, they sought to control drug use. While the intense focus of the antidrug forces was somewhat novel, the perception that drugs were dangerous was nothing new. Social critics had a long history of battling drugs. For the most part, however, they focused on the evils of alcohol use and abuse. It was not until the 1870s that a number of social reformers began to target narcotics.

Like the battles that were being waged over "demon rum," class and race played a significant part in the promotion of legal restrictions on narcotics. While the public discussion regarding the "drug problem" focused on southern blacks, the urban poor, and the Chinese, men and women from all levels of society increasingly used narcotics. By the turn of the century, narcotic addiction had spread throughout the social strata. The perceived pervasiveness of the problem led to a more unified call for government regulation.

Police officers and others concerned with the promotion of law and order often blamed drug addicts for increases in criminal activity. They believed that without narcotics use and abuse there would be significantly less crime. Doctors, initially cool to the idea of government regulation, soon joined the chorus of reformers who voiced their concern over the use and abuse of narcotics. As the medical profession became more organized and structured, doctors sought to promote regulation to thwart the distribution of patent medicines. Many doctors viewed unlicensed peddlers of narcotic elixirs as a threat to society and a challenge to their professional standing. Competition was a main reason for medical professionals to support legal restrictions on narcotics. Fear of competition from patent medicines should not, however, be viewed as the only reason that drug legislation won doctors' endorsement. Doctors saw firsthand the dangers of addiction among some of their patients and colleagues.

Local laws prohibiting the use of narcotics seemed to be incapable of stemming the use of narcotics. This realization led to a unified call for national regulation. Federal regulation of narcotics was nothing new. The federal government had regulated opium through import taxes, but this was a far cry from federal regulation of what had previously been considered a local problem. In 1906, the federal government took a significant step toward stemming narcotic use with passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. The law challenged the patent medicine industry by requiring that they list all ingredients.

Passed in 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Act was designed to regulate and tax the production, importation, distribution, and use of opium, coca leaves, and other substances derived from them. New York congressman Francis Burton Harrison, who later became governor of the Philippines, sponsored the law in Congress. Harrison's interest in the Philippines and his role in developing the law were not coincidental. By the early 20th century, the trade in narcotics, largely focused in Asia, had become a major international problem. Britain and China had fought two opium wars over the practice of Britain importing cheap opium from India into China, and American missionaries and merchants saw the practice as undermining Chinese society and morality on the one hand and narrowing the market for American goods on the other.

When the United States took over the government of the Philippine Islands after the Spanish-American War, it sought to change the older system of controlling narcotics that licensed opium addicts and supplied them with opium, a practice that appalled the new military administration in the Philippines. Licensing addicts regulated usage and avoided other central issues of the production, distribution, and sale of narcotics. The War Department organized a commission of inquiry under the Episcopal bishop, Charles Brent, to explore alternatives. The Brent Commission argued for new international controls on narcotics, a proposal the State Department endorsed and President Theodore Roosevelt embraced. In 1909, he called for an international conference on opium. The first international conference on opium was held in Shanghai in 1909, and a second followed at The Hague in 1911. The International Opium Convention of 1912, the first international treaty regulating drugs, was the product of these meetings. The treaty largely focused on the British opium trade, but it also opened up the discussion of opium control in the United States. By 1914, Congress was ready to pass a domestic measure to stem the domestic sale of narcotics. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan supported the effort, insisting that the United States needed to develop domestic controls in order to meet its obligations under the international treaty.

For Bryan and others, such as Representative James Robert Mann, the sponsor of the bill in the House and author of the Mann Act, the Harrison Act offered the opportunity not simply to regulate and tax opium but to curtail its supply and use. A provision in the bill allowed a doctor to prescribe opium for the treatment of disease "in the course of his professional practice only," a phrase that later was interpreted as prohibiting physicians from supplying addicts with opium, since addiction did not qualify as a disease. In effect, the law also prohibited the use of a number of popular narcotics. It required surveillance of narcotic production, greater record keeping, and general supervision of doctors who prescribed narcotics. Soon after, the courts validated congressional authority to regulate the drug industry. The law favored incarceration over treatment. It turned addicts into criminals. For the next three-quarters of a century, addicts were treated as threats to the social structure and often were incarcerated. Few citizens, apart from concerned physicians, criticized the practice.

Instead, responding to continuing public concern, Congress tightened up the provisions of the Harrison Act, strengthening law enforcement and additional state laws on opiates. In 1924, Congress outlawed the use of heroin, another opiate, prohibiting even its medical uses. By 1926, the Illinois Medical Journal declared that those who had sponsored the Harrison Act were "well-meaning blunderers." Prohibition of narcotics had only doubled the profits of those involved in illegal drug trade. It cost the United States more, the journal argued, "to support the bootleggers of both narcotics and alcoholics than there is good coming from the farcical laws now on the statute books."

Many Americans believed that the Harrison Act was effective in stemming the use and abuse of narcotics. In the years that followed, the act was strengthened. Heroin was banned in 1929. In the 1930s, laws banning marijuana followed. While intense regulation and prohibition were the two most significant forces used by the government to combat drug abuse, they were not the only methods used. The government also began to operate hospitals that aimed at curing those suffering from addiction. These efforts, however, paled in comparison to those that sought to punish drug offenders. At the same time, the combination of legal restrictions and medical treatments allowed most citizens to believe, at least for a number of generations, that the government was winning its war on drugs.


Wayne H. Morgan, Yesterday's Addicts: American Society and Drug Abuse, 1865–1920 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1974); David F. Musto, The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control, 3d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Text Citation (Chicago Manual of Style format):

Freund, Steve. "Harrison Narcotics Act." In Faue, Elizabeth, and Gary B. Nash, eds. Encyclopedia of American History: The Emergence of Modern America, 1900 to 1928, Revised Edition (Volume VII). New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2010. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc.
ItemID=WE52&iPin=EAHVII171&SingleRecord=True (accessed May 4, 2016).

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