The Hundred Year Drug War: 1914-2014 & beyond

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The Hundred Year Drug War: 1914-2014 & beyond

By Rick Macnamara, LCSW

We are approaching a rather dubious anniversary in American history, about which you probably have not heard anyone in the media mention. On December 17, 1914 Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act (Ch. 1, 38 Stat. 785) , a federal law that severely limited the importation and distribution of opiates and coca products.

Although there had been previous laws regulating these substances, this was a far reaching law under the aegis of the Internal Revenue Service and had the effect of ending most previous distribution points, especially doctors who were specifically enjoined from prescribing these substances for maintenance purposes. Ironically, opiate consumption had already been on the decline in the US thanks to better understanding on the part of the public about the dangers of regular cocaine and opiate use.

In one sense, this was an opening shot in the War on Drugs, a sort of Fort Sumter of regulation and criminalization and treatment of drug addiction that has continued to this day. The history of this law and its proponents is an odd one, fueled by non-medical opinions, exaggeration of harmful effects and even Southern racism.

Charles Henry Brent, an American Episcopal priest who spent a considerable amount of time in the Phillipines, where opium addiction was a major public health problem, was an adamant and vocal supporter of opium regulation in the United States, where it was a relatively minor public health problem. Brent attended the 1909 International Opium Commission in Shanghai along with Dr Hamilton Wright, who later reported that “it has been authoritatively stated that cocaine is often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the negroes of the South and other sections of the country.” Dr Wright neglected to give any evidence supporting this and most contemporary reports indicated that the majority of cocaine and opium users were white females first introduced to these substances in patent medicines for painful menses. Wright, it should be noted, became famous as the doctor who discovered that beri-beri was caused by a “bacillus” and he stayed famous and well-connected politically even after it was proven that beri-beri was a vitamin B1 deficiency.

So, one hundred years later, how are we doing? Heroin is reported by the media and politicians to be an epidemic and the substance abuse treatment industry is apparently an $8 billion dollar sinkhole. The toll of human misery caused by drug abuse over the past ten decades is incalculable. Whatever we’re doing is not working and it’s time to think outside the box and try something new.

[1] Harrison Narcotics Tax Act

[1]Musto, David F. (1973). The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control. Yale Univ. pages 3-5.

[1] Wright, Hamilton. Report of the International Opium Commission, Shanghai, China, February 1 to February 26, 1909. Rep. Shanghai: North-China Daily News & Herald, 1909., 17 Mar. 2010. Web. 17 Aug. 2014. <

[1] Street, John Phillips (1917). “The Patent Medicine Situation”. American Journal of Public Health (7). pp. 1

[1] Public Health Pap Rep. 1905;31(Pt 1):289-99.The Cause, Course, Prevention, and Treatment of Beriberi.Wright H. PMID:19601225 [PubMed] PMCID: PMC2222525

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