Lifestyle Economics Blog

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.

Three months after the Supreme Court ruling, the Treaty of Versailles brought an official end to World War I and, thanks to a little noticed clause inserted by the American government, brought the international war on drugs to an unofficial start. Article 295 of the treaty obliged the belligerent nations to suppress the sale and import of opiates. Britain fulfilled its duty by making its wartime restrictions on the sale of drugs permanent with the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920 (since superseded by the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act).

Even before the Harrison Act, various statewide prohibitions had built the foundations for an illicit market characterised by harder drugs, higher prices, organised crime and street-dealing. At the start of the twentieth century, the typical American drug addict was either an elderly, middle class, female morphine addict or an opium smoker of Chinese descent. Both kept themselves to themselves. Under prohibition, the typical addicts were young, male heroin users gathering in the street and committing crime to fund their habit. It is no coincidence that the word ‘junkie’ was coined in the early 1920s.

Before the Harrison Act, the typical drug - though potentially hazardous - was regulated, relatively pure and manufactured by legitimate businesses. Today, the typical drug is of unknown provenance, heavily adulterated and of variable strength. Before the Harrison Act, the typical drug dealer was a pharmacist or physician. Since the 1920s, he has been a member of a criminal underclass.

The Harrison Act allocated $150,000 for enforcement of the new drug laws - the equivalent of around $3 million in today’s money. In 2009, the US government spent nearly $10 billion on enforcement and a further $5 billion on treatment and prevention.

What would they say, those men who drafted the Harrison Act, if they could see where a century of drug prohibition has left us? What would they make of America’s 2.5 million prisoners, a quarter of whom are incarcerated for drug offences? How would the public health doctor Hamilton Wright, who died in 1917, view the world’s 4 million people who contracted HIV as a result of sharing needles, or the 10 million who contracted hepatitis C by the same method, or the 1.3 million who contracted hepatitis B?

With their Progressive faith in the power of law to reform mankind, they would, I think, be surprised to hear that narcotics are still used at all, let alone that consumers have shifted from opium and patent medicines to methamphetamine, crack and heroin (largely for the convenience of the seller rather than the buyer). They would be appalled to see the widespread use of intravenous injection which was unknown before the 1910s. Above all, they would be astonished and disillusioned to find there are many more drug addicts and drug-related deaths than there had been in their day.

Five years after Wilson signed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, the 18th Amendment brought alcohol prohibition to the USA. Whatever else might be said about that ‘noble experiment’, it came about after decades of intense debate over the ‘drink question’ and was repealed after its failure had become manifest. By contrast, America slid into a century of drug prohibition in 1914 with barely a murmur, and no amount of crime, death and disease seems to be enough to bring about reform. Recent moves towards decriminalisation and legalisation in Portugal, Uruguay and a few US states offer some hope, but I would not bet against the war on drugs living to see its second centenary in 2114.

This article was originally published by City AM.

Further reading: Prohibitions by John Meadowcroft et al.

Search

Christopher Snowdon
11 December 2014
My report about pub closures was generally well received when it was published yesterday, with the notable exception of the All-Party Parliamentary Save The Pub Group, which sent out a bizarre and...
Christopher Snowdon
10 December 2014
The UK has lost 21,000 pubs since 1980, with half of these closures taking place since 2006. In Closing Time, a new IEA report, I estimate that long-term cultural changes have been responsible for...
Christopher Snowdon
1 December 2014
In December 2012, the introduction of plain packaging gave the Australian government full control over the design and appearance of cigarette packs. Tobacco branding was abolished and tobacco...
Christopher Snowdon
10 October 2014
A few weeks ago I found myself being filmed in a New Zealand supermarket searching for a healthy meal for four. The Kiwi equivalent of The One Show wanted me to help them demonstrate how much more...
Christopher Snowdon
9 October 2014
A study was published in PLoS One last year titled 'Economic Instruments for Population Diet and Physical Activity Behaviour Change: A Systematic Scoping Review'. I didn't notice it when...
Christopher Snowdon
16 September 2014
The economist Julian Simon once wrote that ‘the economic study of advertising is not deserving of great attention’, ruefully adding that ‘this is not a congenial point at which to...
Christopher Snowdon
18 August 2014
Obesity prevalence has increased sharply in Britain since the 1970s. Many public health campaigners portray Britain’s obesity ‘epidemic’ as being caused by the increased...
Christopher Snowdon
4 July 2014
The e-cigarette market in Britain has the closest thing to perfect competition that you will see in the real world. Perfect competition is a theoretical economic model but, like most economic models...
Christopher Snowdon
15 June 2014
Alcohol policy in Britain and many other countries aims to reduce per capita alcohol consumption in the belief that this will inevitably reduce heavy and harmful drinking. Campaigners cite the...
Christopher Snowdon
4 June 2014
The US Food and Drug Administration is considering making a calculation of the pleasure that people get from using e-cigarettes and tobacco products. It has suggested that financial estimates of the...
Christopher Snowdon
13 May 2014
The Economist has put a nice little chart together based on the latest World Health Organisation report on alcohol. It shows alcohol consumption per capita but also per drinker. Contrary to...
Christopher Snowdon
1 May 2014
Much of the moral panic about gambling in recent years has centred on the claim that the number of problem gamblers has "increased by 50% in three years" and that the UK has 450,000...
Christopher Snowdon
24 March 2014
The latest installment of the plain packaging saga is expected to arrive before the end of the month. After the initial public consultation found that two-thirds of those who responded were opposed...
Christopher Snowdon
19 March 2014
Today's budget was another curate's egg from the perspective of lifestyle liberty. The decision to scrap the alcohol duty escalator is very welcome, as is the freezing of spirits and cider...
Christopher Snowdon
18 March 2014
The authors of the report that claims that inequality costs the UK £39 billion a year (see yesterday’s post) say that rates of imprisonment would fall by 37 per cent in a ‘more...
Christopher Snowdon
17 March 2014
On Sunday, the Observer reported that ‘Inequality “costs Britain £39bn a year’. This is based on the belief that ‘a more equal UK would experience less crime and...
Christopher Snowdon
18 February 2014
As reported in The Guardian and elsewhere, the Alcohol Health Alliance has issued a press release in response to the ongoing campaign to bring an end to the alcohol duty escalator which, according to...
Christopher Snowdon
5 February 2014
In June 2012, the IEA published Sock Puppets, a report which looked at the evidence, and implications, of taxpayer funding for the large and growing element of ‘civil society’ that is...
Christopher Snowdon
4 February 2014
The French think tank Institut économique Molinari has recently published a clear and well-referenced report that looks at the false premises and negative consequences associated with sin...
Ryan Bourne
30 January 2014
It’s often said that modern day politicians lack conviction – that is, they are afraid of expressing their firmly held beliefs. This is not universally true, of course. But one of the...

Invest in the IEA. We are the catalyst for changing consensus and influencing public debate.

Donate now

Thank you for
your support

Subscribe to
publications

Subscribe

eNEWSLETTER