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100 Words on the Harrison Act at 100

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 turns 100 years old tomorrow. The new federal law regulated traffic in opiates and cocaine and produced lasting effects for US and international drug policy (you can read the full text here). Today, four celebrated scholars offer 100-word reflections on first 100 years of the Harrison Act. 


The Harrison Act and the First World War both reach centennial commemorations in 2014. Beyond poppies, what do their written histories have in common? To be sure, a great deal of ink spilled over the origins of war, both Great and Drug. But is our understanding of battle as sure for the Harrison Act’s legacy? We must, I believe, at this centennial moment, recommit ourselves to a thorough reconstruction of the drug war’s front lines. Not merely to memorialize the fallen, though this alone would be worthy, but to properly understand what follows from creation and control of illicit enterprise.

– Joseph F. Spillane, Associate Dean of Student Affairs, Associate Professor of History, University of Florida

The Harrison Act is best known as a drug-war law, but it was also a muscular regulator of legal pharmaceuticals.  It went far beyond the Food and Drug Act in creating the first prescription-only drugs; enabling close oversight of their manufacture, marketing, and sale; and empowering the government to define and intrusively police their “legitimate” prescribing by physicians.  Ironically, the Harrison tradition of strong pharmaceutical regulation has been obscured by the dope/medicine divide that Harrison itself formalized.  Despite its many abuses, this tradition belongs in the conversation about America’s other drug war—the often futile effort to tame “Big Pharma.”

David Herzberg, Associate Professor of History, Director of the MA Program, State University of New York at Buffalo

A hoary hangover from the Progressive era, the Harrison Act passed with minimal debate and resounding effects. The prelude played up the lawlessness and moral evils of drug-crazed, racially charged fiends impermeable to bullets. Contemporary commentators pointed out the mismatch between taxing those involved in the legitimate trade in narcotics and creating an unregulated ‘black’ market that made de facto criminals of doctors, addicts, and traffickers. As Rufus King wrote in 1953, the Harrison Act “jail[ed] the healer and the sick.” Interpreted as ruling out maintenance, the Harrison Act upped the ante on criminalization. A decade out, Congress called for heightened enforcement and thus triggered the prison overcrowding that led to the building of the US Narcotic Farm—a prison/hospital for Harrison Act violators.

– Nancy D. Campbell, HASS Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Research, Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The Harrison Act was just one of several early twentieth century laws that contributed to the development of a dynamic drug-war system between Mexico and the United States. Already the 1909 Opium Exclusion Act had inspired “prepared opium” shipments from Asia to Mexico for smuggling north. Other restrictions in the U.S., from temperance laws to the shuttering of horse tracks in California, had pushed vice into the borderlands and helped to turn Tijuana, Mexicali, Juarez, and other border towns into notorious “sin cities.” Harrison, though a relatively modest regulatory act by today’s standards, intensified these developing transnational flows whose consequences today are so tragic.

Isaac Campos, Associate Professor of History, University of Cincinnati

Check back on Thursday for a longer essay on the act’s legacy by Suzanna Reiss, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Hawai’i and author of We Sell Drugs: The Alchemy of US Empire (University of California Press, 2014).

In the meantime, we invite Points readers and contributors to respond with their own interpretations of the long-lived Harrison Act in the comments below.


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