420: The Controversy of Medicinal Drugs and the Harrison Act of 1914

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

20 April has become “Weed Day” for marijuana enthusiasts and the designation of “420” is attributed to several origins, including one that records its use coming from high school students smoking cannabis at 4:20 in the afternoon once school was out.

In 2003, Governor Gray Davis signed a medical marijuana law, authored by state senator John Vasconcellos, that was Senate Bill 420.  Since then, the movement to legalize pot has grown dramatically with recreational use of small amounts now allowed in several states.

The history of the use of drugs in America has always been controversial, though it can still be surprising to learn that many easily available commercial patent medicines in the 19th century, for example, often had significant amounts of alcohol, morphine, opium and cocaine in them.  Government regulation was virtually non-existent until the early 20th century and efforts to limit the use of narcotics went hand-in-hand with the growing movement to prohibit the production, sale and use of alcohol.

With the opium epidemic in China spreading elsewhere, international efforts to mitigate a growing problem led to the consideration of the American government to do something to address the international obligations of the Hague Convention of 1912.

In late 1914, Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, which provided a mechanism for a special levy on those who manufactured, imported, sold, dispensed or distributed opium or coca leaves, as well as compounds, derivatives and other preparations based on these.  Smaller quantities in over the counter medication and larger amounts prescribed by a licensed physician were covered.  Patent medicine manufacturers, however, who used less than a certain amount of opium, morphine or heroin were exempt.  Cocaine was also included in the law, although is a stimulant, not a narcotic, though the latter term will be used here.

Harrison Act drug order form 1928
This 1928 order form for narcotic drugs under the auspices of the Harrison Act of 1914 comes from the Homestead’s collection.

In the Homestead collection is a duplicate order form issued in 1923 by the federal Treasury department for the special tax.  Issued in Los Angeles on 14 June 1928, by collector Galen H. Welch to osteopath Dr. Irving Richard Kaiser, the form was the record the name of the narcotic, a catalog number, the number and size of packages (including theose with the appropriate revenue stamp), and the date filled.

Text on the form noted that “unless this order calls only for one ounce of an aqueous [liquid] narcotic solution, it may be filled only by an importer, manufacturer, producer, compounder, or wholesale dealer.”  Otherwise, “if fill by another other person, liability to tax . . . will be incurred by the vendor if broken or unstamped packages are supplied” as well as a similar situation for a wholesaler “if stamped packages are furnished.”

Once the business involved was discontinued “this form must be return for cancellation to the collector who issued it.”  Presumably Dr. Kaiser, a native of Alabama, who practiced in Los Angeles during the late 1920s through late 1930s and in Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana, as well, closed his practice or decided to withdraw (!) from dispensing narcotic drugs because this form was stamped “CANCELLED” in a couple of places.

While the prohibition of alcohol received a great deal of attention for the ease in which the law was broken, the support the attempt to limit alcohol sales and consumption gave rise to organized crime, and other consequences, little is known generally about the Harrison Act and its results.

One issue was that addiction was not then considered a disease, so doctors prescribing narcotics to addicts as a way to manage their addiction were subject to arrest on the contention that they were violating the the law’s application to use as part of a professional practice.  What was intended to have a proper system for dispensation turned into a means to prohibit distribution.

Consequently, the trafficking of narcotics on the black market and the smuggling of drugs into the United States from Mexico and, at the time in a larger quantity, from Canada skyrocketed as a result of the act’s interpretation.  By 1924, heroin, even for medicinal purposes, was subsumed under the act as an illicit drug and prohibited.

Harrison Act drug order form reverse 1928
The reverse side of the form contains a daunting set of instructions as well as an endorsement section filled out by the consignor of the drugs.

In 1918, only three years after the Harrison Act became law, a federal commission reported that the use of opiates and other narcotics involved a million Americans, though this was overstated.  It also reported that the illicit trade in these drugs matched the legal medical trade.   Drug dealers were national in scope, the report continued, and the flourishing of the black market was particularly acute in cities like New York and San Francisco, though Los Angeles certainly had its share of dealers and users in the underground market.

As calls for tightening the law and increasing enforcement of the act led to action, it was assumed that heroin was worse than morphine, though research had largely shown otherwise.  Not only that, after the 1924 ban on heroin, the drug actually grew in use, while morphine addiction declined.  Moreover, longer sentences were being handed out for drug offenses, but the illegal trade in drugs continued.

In 1926, a medical journal published in Illinois, claimed that the Harrison Act “should never have been placed” on the federal statute books and observed

It is to be granted that the well-meaning blunderers who put it there had in mind only the idea of making it impossible to secure their supply of ‘dope’ and to prevent unprincipled people from making fortunes, and fattening upon the infirmities of their fellow men.

The article went on to state that doctors who need narcotics as part of their practice were deterred from doing so, while lawbreaking drug dealers were “in clover” (or, perhaps, poppies).  It also stated that

It is costing the United States more to support bootleggers of both narcotics and alcoholics than there is good coming from the farcical laws now on the statute books.

The Harrison Act was superseded by the 1970 passage of the Controlled Substances Act and the “drug war” that followed has been hotly debated in terms of strategy, tactics and results.  Many of us today assume that this has only been an issue of the last several decades, when, the history of the Harrison Act, shows that the problem has been, from a federal regulatory perspective, going on for a little more than a century.

One thought

  1. It might be interesting to know that although the Harrison Act was superseded by the Controlled Substances Act, the order form suppliers use for Schedule II narcotics is a carryover from the old law. Suppliers (hospitals and pharmacies) are required to fill out special forms, like the one in Paul’s blog, for these drugs (with specific quantities listed—and no errors on the form); while all other drugs are ordered through regular means.

Leave a Reply