Arguably, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act was one of the most impactful federal laws created in the twentieth century. The act was one of the first laws that effectively criminalized the production, importing, manufacturing, compounding, selling, and distributing of opium and coca leaves (the leaves often used to make cocaine).

The act may initially seem basic and unimportant, especially since the Controlled Substances Act of 1971 later superseded it. However, the act and its creation set the tenor of how the United States government and law enforcement authorities viewed drugs, especially in terms of race, criminal justice, medical practices, regulations, and judicial interpretations throughout the century and, in some cases, into the present day.

This article will explore the creation of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act (HNTA), its elements, and its interpretations. The act and the reasoning behind this act have had a wide impact since its creation and continue to be influential today.

The Creation of the Law

Before the 1900s, drug regulation was little to nonexistent in the United States. Physicians would prescribe opium and cocaine for medical purposes, and both drugs were available for over-the-counter use. While there were some state and local regulations for these powerful drugs, most of the time, they would only apply to public usage. This Wild West atmosphere relating to drugs began to change in the early twentieth century.

The need for more regulation on drugs became evident in the early 1900s. These drugs were sometimes linked to criminal activity and increased use in hospitals. Dr. Hamilton Wright was one of the earliest advocates for federal regulations of opium and cocaine.

Dr. Wright attended the first International Opium Commission in Shanghai in 1909, an international meeting initiated by U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt. He found that the regulations and parameters set by the United States were far lower than their European counterparts. He believed that these mild regulations caused issues relating to drug crime in the United States.

While white people primarily committed drug-related crimes in the United States, Dr. Wright attempted to stoke racial fears to increase drug regulations. These fears included the claims that black people using cocaine would rape white women, that cocaine-using black people would have better pistol marksmanship skills, and that black people would have superhuman powers and rebel against white authorities while high on the substance. He stoked fears about opium use by claiming that the drug caused white women to cohabitate with Chinese people, a highly frowned upon practice among most white people.

Eventually, these claims caught the attention of the U.S. Congress. One of these Congressional representatives was Francis Harrison, a Democrat from New York. Although by 1914, most states already had strong regulations about cocaine and opium, Harrison wanted to codify drug regulations into federal law.

During the creation of the law that would become the HNTA, people often debated whether the law was for taxation or prohibition. Harrison’s opinion was clear during a committee report: “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.” Shortly after hearings on opium and cocaine use, Congress passed the HNTA, and President Woodrow Wilson signed it into law in 1914.

The fact that the HNTA passed due to bipartisan racism spelled trouble for drug policy in the years to come. The HNTA created an odd precedent in which drug policy no longer served solely for citizens’ best interests but was also used to punish racial minorities. This precedent continued in the formation of modern drug policy, a topic that will be covered later in the article.

The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act

At face value, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act may first appear to be a registration and tax act, not unlike state laws that regulate the selling of recreational marijuana today. The act states that its intentions are “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.” However, while the state laws of today intend to provide marijuana vendors with new opportunities for licensing and sales, the intentions behind the HNTA were far different.

When breaking down HNTA’s statutes, one point needs clarification. Toward the end of Section 1, the act states that “It shall be unlawful for any person required to register under the terms of this Act to produce, import, manufacture, compound, deal in, dispense, sell, distribute, any of the aforesaid drugs without having registered and paid the special tax provided for this section.”

In layman’s terms, this part of the act is basically saying, “You cannot have access to any of these drugs without being approved by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and ponying up some dough.” This is where the act reveals its true nature. Essentially, the act says that it is within the IRS’s prerogative to determine who is allowed to register and pay the special tax in the first place. This crafty method thus indirectly outlaws drugs.

At first glance, one may question why the government did not just create an act that outlawed drugs more directly. The main reason for this was that the medical profession still utilized opium and cocaine in those days. For the most part, the people allowed to register to dispense these drugs were physicians.

Indeed, the HNTA even accounts for this situation in Section 2(a), which allows physicians to dispense these drugs to patients for medical use, provided that physicians provide written records of where they distribute the drugs. Furthermore, the courts of that era would have likely frowned upon the direct regulation of the substances, since courts then often heavily favored the rights of U.S. states and financial markets.

The penalties for violating this law were incredibly stiff. Violating HNTA would result in a felony conviction and a fine of $2,000 (about $50,000 in today’s dollars) and/or a five-year prison sentence. Therefore, violating this law could be costly.

Immediate Effects and Judicial Interpretations

The HNTA created widespread effects throughout the United States. Enforcement of the act was swift and led to the arrests of individuals. It also led to the arrests of physicians.

Vague language that appears in section 2(a) of the act led to many of the physicians’ arrests. While this section did allow a physician to prescribe drugs to patients, it also vaguely stated that the physician may only do this “in the course of his professional practice only.”

This ambiguity allowed the federal government to define what constituted medical practice at the time. Sometimes, physicians would prescribe opiates to individuals who suffered from addiction. Since the federal government and the public at large did not define addiction as a disease, authorities often arrested physicians for prescribing opiates for those individuals.

But, illegal or not, addicts and others wanted opiates and other illicit substances. Black markets have fulfilled this need and continue into the twenty-first century.

Although many people challenged the HNTA in court on multiple occasions, the law would often prevail. Many people challenged the HNTA under the premise that the federal government was infringing on the state regulation of medical practices by using taxes as an excuse regulate.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1919 in United States v. Doremus that under the Constitution, Congress had the right to levy excise taxes and force registration, regardless if the intention was to raise revenue or not. Using Doremus as a precedent, the Supreme Court also ruled in Webb v. United States that prescribing opiates for maintenance treatment (treatment that prevents diseases from returning or worsening) was not permissible under the HNTA.

Later, the Supreme Court did agree that the HNTA could not supersede state regulation of medical practices in 1925 in Linder v. United States. This case allowed physicians to prescribe opiates, cocaine, and other illicit substances to addicts at their own discretion if they practiced in U.S. states that allowed them to do so.

While the idea of the Supreme Court ruling in this way may seem strange today, it is important to remember that this was during the Lochner era, an era when Supreme Court rulings that favored states’ rights and private market practices dominated the public sphere. This ruling and era placed drug enforcement in a strange spot.

The enforcement of drug policy continued to be indirect for some time. Most federal laws banning substances were created as new tax laws rather than forms of direct regulation. As time went on, that began to change.

Modern-Day Changes and Effects of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act

The HNTA and its historical creation have created a lasting impact that continues to the present day and has served as a template for modern drug policy. The creation of HNTA spurred the creation of several other laws, including the Marihuana Tax Act, which made marijuana illegal. This act also used racism and fearmongering, including beliefs that the drug would turn Mexican immigrants into killers.

Other drug regulations included the Boggs Act, which increased the penalties for violating drug laws and led to more drug-related incarcerations. The Daniel Act further expanded penalties relating to drugs. These laws led to the evolution of the executive branch’s enforcement of drug policy and the creation of federal agencies such as the Bureau of Narcotics and Bureau of Drug Abuse Control. Both of these agencies eventually merged to become the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, which later became known as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Eventually, the HNTA and other drug laws needed to be modernized. With the federal government growing in significant size since the New Deal and the courts more willing to allow the federal government to make regulations, people began clamoring for a new law to simplify drug laws and expand enforcement scopes. This new legislation was the Controlled Substances Act, which combined the current existing drug laws. President Richard Nixon signed this legislation in 1971.

Unfortunately, many people consider the Controlled Substances Act to be the unofficial start of the modern drug war. It has continued the racist fears and policies of previous drug laws.

For example, people have debated whether the government should place cannabis (marijuana) as a Schedule I substance in its drug classifications. The government considers Schedule I substances the most dangerous types of substances and states that they have no medical use.

As a consequence, marijuana was illegal in all circumstances after the signing of the Controlled Substances Act. It is still illegal under federal law.

Why? Nixon’s aides have said that one of the main reasons that the administration wanted to make marijuana a Schedule I substance was to target black people and hippies. The 1971 law gave the federal government more gumption and larger amounts of power to enforce the law, and enforcement increased to never-before-seen levels. This level of enforcement, along with strict sentencing laws that began in the 1980s, has led to the mass incarceration of racial minorities, a problem that still persists today.

The legacy of the HNTA persists. Indirectly, HNTA has also influenced other laws. One such law is the regulation of assisted suicide on a state-by-state basis. The U.S. Supreme Court decision Gonzales v. Oregon confirmed this right.

Justice Anthony Kennedy penned the opinion of the court in Gonzales. He said that the Controlled Substances Act did not allow the federal government to determine proper medical practices so long as the suicide drugs were legal in the United States. Although not directly referenced, this is a similar line of reasoning that Linder v. United States used when it allowed doctors to prescribe opiates for addicts.

Whether direct or indirect, and for better or for worse, no one can deny that the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act played a large role in American drug policy, enforcement, incarceration, race relations, and judicial interpretations. One day, the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) may be obsolete. During that time, it may be best to consider the HNTA and CSA’s mistakes and use these lessons to create a modern drug policy that works for all. Perhaps one that is more compassionate by focusing more on drug rehab centers rather than incarceration.

Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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