Providing straightforward information pertaining to drugs, drug use & drug policy. The Grey Pages promotes drug-related literacy and advocates a system of viable and tolerant drug policies. This is my personal collection of commentaries, essays, tid-bits, and other such writings on everything ranging from drug use, drug policy and drug-myths, to drug-science, addiction, human behavior, and the workings of the human brain. I started this blog with a particular focus on opioids, and over the past year have found my interest gravitate toward the intriguing, ever-changing world of designer intoxicants (i.e. "research chemicals" or "designer drugs").

Sunday, April 15, 2012

History Lesson: A Legislative Kick-Start to Criminal Drug Prohibition (The Harrison Act)

In 1914, the "Harrison Narcotics Tax Act" was established. 

The harrison act would be the very first federal law to establish criminal sanctions on the use of certain drugs. It would also set the model for every piece of federal criminal legislation from that point on through 1970 (including, for instance, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937).

The intention of this act was to criminalize the nonmedical use of narcotics, and to regulate the medical use of narcotics. 

There were roadblocks in achieving this federal law - the constitutional doctrine of States rights. The federal government (i.e. Congress) did not have the legitimate power to regulate any professional practice, nor did it have the power to enact any criminal law. This power was left to the individual states themselves (only in recent years have we seen criminal laws established at the federal level). Congress was slick, as it utilized the one tool which they could in order to bypass these limitations of power. The federal income tax (which was established just 1 year prior) set somewhat of a precedent for the congressional power to tax.

The Harrison Act was disguised as a simple tax measure - consisting of 2 specific taxes. 

The first tax was paid by doctors. By paying a fee, doctors would be given a registration (or "stamp") from the government allowing them to prescribe narcotics, as long as they followed the conditions in the statute - we can see here that simply by instituting this tax, the doctors would be required to follow whatever mandates were within this statute. That is, unless they opted not to register, in which case they would be unable to utilize drugs which at that point were essential in medical practice.

The second tax was yet another kicker - the statute mandated that a ridiculously high tax be paid by doctors or druggists for every nonmedical prescription written or dispensed for narcotics. The catch being; no one was going to pay such a massive tax in order to prescribe narcotics to a patient who had no clinically recognized "need". 

The 2 taxes established within the Harrison Act would, in essence, create a defacto criminal prohibition of the nonmedical use of certain drugs. From this point on for around 40 years; doctors who prescribed narcotics for nonmedical use (without paying this ridiculously expensive tax), and individuals who used narcotics without a prescription, were prosecuted for "tax evasion".

See Here for further reading on the aftermath of the Harrison Act.

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