The Harrison Act has been called the single most important piece of drug legislation in the history of American medicine. Approved in 1914 and enacted in March, 1915 by the 63rd Congress (Woodrow Wilson was President), it is considered by many historians to be the beginning of the progressive and now dominating influence of the
federal government on healthcare in the United States. It also clearly had the unintended consequence of creating America’s modern drug culture and enforcement bureaucracy.
What most people today do not realize is that in the early 1900’s the sale of and use of narcotic drugs including opium, morphine, cocaine, and heroin was legal and unregulated. One need only to present to the local drugstore to be dispensed these substances. Until the Food and Drug Act of 1905 these substances, along with cannabis type compounds, were common ingredients in many patent medications.
The Harrison Act (named after congressman Francis Burton Harrison) arose out of political forces that were operating largely outside of the United States. There was very little interest in the early 1900’s for a prohibition against narcotics – the real target for activists was not narcotic use and addiction but rather a prohibition against alcohol.
The genesis of the Harrison Act was the takeover by the United States of the Phillipines after the Spanish-American War. Opium was a legal trade in the Phillipines at the time and the Spanish government had a generally orderly system of state-licensed opium dealers, who paid their taxes regularly.
The American authorities were more than willing to continue this working system (and to collect the tax revenue) when the outrage of a small group of evangelical Protestant missionaries in the Phillipines boiled over at the thought that the United States government would sanction the use of opium. Determined to stop the pending American approval of an already existing system, they did what all good special interests groups do – they hired a Washington lobbyist.
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