Harrison Narcotics Tax Act

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The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act (Ch. 1, 38 Stat. 785) was a United States federal law that regulated and taxed the production, importation, and distribution of opiates. The act was proposed by Representative Francis Burton Harrison of New York and was approved on December 17, 1914.[1]

"An Act To provide for the registration of, with collectors of internal revenue, and to impose a special tax on all persons who produce, import, manufacture, compound, deal in, dispense, sell, distribute, or give away opium or coca leaves, their salts, derivatives, or preparations, and for other purposes." The courts interpreted this to mean that physicians could prescribe narcotics to patients in the course of normal treatment, but not for the treatment of addiction.

Although technically illegal for purposes of distribution and use, the distribution, sale and use of cocaine was still legal for registered companies and individuals.



International background

Following the Spanish-American War the U.S. acquired the Philippines from Spain. At that time, opium addiction constituted a significant problem in the civilian population of the Philippines. It was also a significant and growing social problem in the continental United States, especially among immigrants of Chinese descent.

Charles Henry Brent was an American Episcopal bishop who served as Missionary Bishop of the Philippines beginning in 1901. He convened a Commission of Inquiry, known as the Brent Commission, for the purpose of examining alternatives to a licensing system for opium addicts. The Commission recommended that narcotics should be subject to international control. The recommendations of the Brent Commission were endorsed by the United States Department of State and in 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt called for an international conference, the International Opium Commission, which was held in Shanghai in February 1909. A second conference was held at The Hague in May 1911, and out of it came the first international drug control treaty, the International Opium Convention of 1912.

Domestic Background

In the 1800s opiates and cocaine were mostly unregulated drugs. In the 1890s the Sears & Roebuck catalogue, which was distributed to millions of Americans homes, offered a syringe and a small amount of cocaine for $1.50.[2]

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