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What is the Harrison Act?

The Harrison Act of 1914 marked a pivotal shift in U.S. policy, as it began the regulation and criminalization of opiates and cocaine. This legislation laid the groundwork for modern drug laws, intertwining public health with legal enforcement. How did this act shape America's approach to drug control? Join us as we explore its lasting impact on society.
S. Ashraf
S. Ashraf

The Harrison Act is a federal law passed by Congress in 1914. Also known as the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, this Act was the first use of federal criminal law in the United Sates to attempt to deal with the nonmedical use of drugs. The provisions of this act were designed to regulate and tax not only the distribution of opiates and the derivatives of coca leaves but their production and importation as well. This act has largely been superseded by the Controlled Substances Act, which was passed in 1970.

Under the Harrison Act, anyone directly involved at any level in the movement of opiates and coca leaf derivatives into and within the United States was subject to a special tax and required to register with the Internal Revenue Service. The categories of people who were required to register included anyone involved in importing, manufacturing, producing, selling, dispensing or distributing opium or coca leaves and their derivatives or preparations. Congress wanted to have records of any transactions involving these drugs so that the government could monitor the flow of narcotics into and within the country in an effort to confine their use to only specified scientific or medical purposes. An individual violating the Harrison Act faced a fine of $2,000 US Dollars (USD), a maximum of five years in jail, or both.

Congress passed the Harrison Act in 1914.
Congress passed the Harrison Act in 1914.

Importantly, the intention of the Harrison Act was to limit narcotics to appropriate scientific and medical uses. Consequently, this act included the first oversight of the distribution and dispensing of these drugs by qualified practitioners such as dentists, physicians and pharmacists. Prior to the Harrison Act, these medical personnel were able to distribute opium, morphine and cocaine without regulation. Under the act, qualified practitioners were required to maintain records of all the substances prescribed or distributed. For the first time, possession of narcotics for nonmedical uses was made a crime, and individuals were required to provide documentation that the narcotics in their possession were legally obtained.

The Harrison Act included oversight of pharmacists and other professions that distribute and dispense drugs.
The Harrison Act included oversight of pharmacists and other professions that distribute and dispense drugs.

Although the Harrison Act was directed at imposing controls over certain classes of drugs, in reality, it was enacted as a revenue act. Congress intended the taxes imposed by the act to be a way of generating revenue. Consequently, the enforcement of this act, and the monitoring of medical personnel, was placed under the Internal Revenue Service of the Treasury Department.

Frequently Asked Questions

What was the primary purpose of the Harrison Act?

The intention of the Harrison Act was to limit narcotics to appropriate scientific and medical uses.
The intention of the Harrison Act was to limit narcotics to appropriate scientific and medical uses.

The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 was primarily aimed at regulating and taxing the production, importation, and distribution of opiates and coca products. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), it was the first significant piece of federal legislation to control the use of substances considered drugs. The act required those who produced, imported, manufactured, compounded, dealt in, dispensed, or gave away certain drugs to register and pay a special tax.

How did the Harrison Act affect medical practice in the United States?

The Harrison Act had a profound impact on medical practice by restricting the prescription of opiates and cocaine, substances that were previously used with relative freedom by physicians. As a result, doctors were required to register and pay taxes to legally prescribe these drugs, and prescriptions for maintenance treatment to addicts were effectively criminalized. This led to a significant reduction in the legal use of these substances for medical purposes.

Did the Harrison Act lead to any unintended consequences?

Yes, the Harrison Act led to several unintended consequences. One of the most significant was the criminalization of addiction. As the act did not distinguish between medical use and recreational use, individuals who were dependent on narcotics often found themselves facing criminal charges. This shift contributed to the growth of a black market for narcotics and the beginning of the modern war on drugs, as noted by scholars and historical accounts.

Was the Harrison Act ever challenged or deemed unconstitutional?

The Harrison Act faced legal challenges, but it was upheld by the Supreme Court in several landmark cases, including Webb v. United States (1919) and United States v. Doremus (1919). These decisions affirmed the government's authority to regulate narcotics through taxation and set precedents for the future control of drugs. The act's constitutionality was based on the government's power to tax and regulate interstate commerce.

How did the Harrison Act shape future drug policy in the United States?

The Harrison Act laid the groundwork for future drug policy in the United States by establishing the precedent for federal regulation of drugs. It marked the beginning of a legislative trend towards the prohibition of drugs, leading to subsequent laws like the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 and the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. The act's legacy is seen in the ongoing efforts to balance public health, medical needs, and law enforcement in drug policy.

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Discussion Comments

anon1003159

If drugs were legal, millions of good people that got busted for pot or a few pills would not limit their job options, go broke and a pot smoker would not have their weed man push harder drugs on them.

anon345367

There are plenty of so called "research" companies that do get their "samples" through legal channels and I would think that this act was a way to monitor and tax them so that they are no different than say, tobacco farms and such! (The only difference being that they originate outside the country and are administered here in the US.)

Overall, any sane method will be hijacked by the so called "moral police" and will end up being used for something altogether different than what it was proposed to be. One way to deal with this would be to get the state out of your personal life and body!

So here is the model: see something you feel uncomfortable dealing with! Right away, make it illegal and crusade against it, in the form of war on drugs and so forth. What is really happening is a war on poverty and a way to dispense of the poor by making them slaves in private jails and institutions!

The USA is worse than any other place on this planet when it comes to its draconian laws and regulations.

fify

Wasn't alcohol illegal around the time the Harrison act was passed? Do the two have anything to do with one another?

stoneMason

@ddljohn-- Actually at that time, drug addiction was seen as more of a health issue, like an illness, rather than a crime.

So the 1914 Harrison act was supposed to help by making drug addicts go to doctors for drugs. And the government would be aware of how much drugs doctors had and how much they administered to their patients.

But the interpretation of the act didn't really work out the way it was supposed to and the courts ended up passing that the Harrison act was unconstitutional.

ddljohn

I'm a little confused about the Harrison act of 1914. I don't understand how the Harrison Act would have helped regulate use and entry of narcotics in the United States. Don't non-medical narcotics enter the country mostly illegally? So the government doesn't have any way to regulate that anyway.

And legal entry and use of narcotics probably limits itself. I can't imagine any medical professional providing limitless amounts of narcotics to a patient even before the Harrison Act was passed.

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    • Congress passed the Harrison Act in 1914.
      By: ETIEN
      Congress passed the Harrison Act in 1914.
    • The Harrison Act included oversight of pharmacists and other professions that distribute and dispense drugs.
      By: Deklofenak
      The Harrison Act included oversight of pharmacists and other professions that distribute and dispense drugs.
    • The intention of the Harrison Act was to limit narcotics to appropriate scientific and medical uses.
      By: Burlingham
      The intention of the Harrison Act was to limit narcotics to appropriate scientific and medical uses.