One hundred years ago today, President Woodrow Wilson approved the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, the US’s first national legislation designed to control the manufacture, import and supply of opium and cocaine. Francis Burton Harrison, a Democrat representative, did little more than give his name to the law. The heavy lifting was done by Dr Hamilton Wright, a zealous public health specialist who believed that opium was “the greatest curse which humanity has ever known”. After wildly exaggerating the scale of drug addiction in the US, with particular reference to alleged drug-induced depravity among certain ethnic groups, Wright drew up a Bill that effectively banned the sale of narcotics for recreational use. It sowed the seeds for the war on drugs as we know it today.History almost demands that a law as portentous as the Harrison Act should have been the subject of anguished discussion and national controversy. In fact, the Congressional debate lasted only a few minutes and was not even mentioned in that day’s New York Times. The American public was more interested in arguing about the other great Progressive cause of the era - alcohol prohibition - than defending non-medical drug use, which almost everybody agreed was immoral.The Harrison Act gave the medical establishment a monopoly over the supply of drugs. For a few years under the new regime, physicians made handsome profits selling opiates to addicts until the Supreme Court ruled, in March 1919, that addiction was not a legitimate medical problem. Almost overnight, 200,000 opiate habitués were deprived of a legal source of supply and, by 1930, a third of America’s prison population had been incarcerated for drug violations.
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