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What is the Harrison Act?

By S. Ashraf
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Harrison Act is a federal law passed by Congress in 1914. Also known as the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, this Act was the first use of federal criminal law in the United Sates to attempt to deal with the nonmedical use of drugs. The provisions of this act were designed to regulate and tax not only the distribution of opiates and the derivatives of coca leaves but their production and importation as well. This act has largely been superseded by the Controlled Substances Act, which was passed in 1970.

Under the Harrison Act, anyone directly involved at any level in the movement of opiates and coca leaf derivatives into and within the United States was subject to a special tax and required to register with the Internal Revenue Service. The categories of people who were required to register included anyone involved in importing, manufacturing, producing, selling, dispensing or distributing opium or coca leaves and their derivatives or preparations. Congress wanted to have records of any transactions involving these drugs so that the government could monitor the flow of narcotics into and within the country in an effort to confine their use to only specified scientific or medical purposes. An individual violating the Harrison Act faced a fine of $2,000 US Dollars (USD), a maximum of five years in jail, or both.

Importantly, the intention of the Harrison Act was to limit narcotics to appropriate scientific and medical uses. Consequently, this act included the first oversight of the distribution and dispensing of these drugs by qualified practitioners such as dentists, physicians and pharmacists. Prior to the Harrison Act, these medical personnel were able to distribute opium, morphine and cocaine without regulation. Under the act, qualified practitioners were required to maintain records of all the substances prescribed or distributed. For the first time, possession of narcotics for nonmedical uses was made a crime, and individuals were required to provide documentation that the narcotics in their possession were legally obtained.

Although the Harrison Act was directed at imposing controls over certain classes of drugs, in reality, it was enacted as a revenue act. Congress intended the taxes imposed by the act to be a way of generating revenue. Consequently, the enforcement of this act, and the monitoring of medical personnel, was placed under the Internal Revenue Service of the Treasury Department.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1003159 — On May 11, 2020

If drugs were legal, millions of good people that got busted for pot or a few pills would not limit their job options, go broke and a pot smoker would not have their weed man push harder drugs on them.

By anon345367 — On Aug 18, 2013

There are plenty of so called "research" companies that do get their "samples" through legal channels and I would think that this act was a way to monitor and tax them so that they are no different than say, tobacco farms and such! (The only difference being that they originate outside the country and are administered here in the US.)

Overall, any sane method will be hijacked by the so called "moral police" and will end up being used for something altogether different than what it was proposed to be. One way to deal with this would be to get the state out of your personal life and body!

So here is the model: see something you feel uncomfortable dealing with! Right away, make it illegal and crusade against it, in the form of war on drugs and so forth. What is really happening is a war on poverty and a way to dispense of the poor by making them slaves in private jails and institutions!

The USA is worse than any other place on this planet when it comes to its draconian laws and regulations.

By fify — On Dec 30, 2012

Wasn't alcohol illegal around the time the Harrison act was passed? Do the two have anything to do with one another?

By stoneMason — On Dec 30, 2012

@ddljohn-- Actually at that time, drug addiction was seen as more of a health issue, like an illness, rather than a crime.

So the 1914 Harrison act was supposed to help by making drug addicts go to doctors for drugs. And the government would be aware of how much drugs doctors had and how much they administered to their patients.

But the interpretation of the act didn't really work out the way it was supposed to and the courts ended up passing that the Harrison act was unconstitutional.

By ddljohn — On Dec 29, 2012

I'm a little confused about the Harrison act of 1914. I don't understand how the Harrison Act would have helped regulate use and entry of narcotics in the United States. Don't non-medical narcotics enter the country mostly illegally? So the government doesn't have any way to regulate that anyway.

And legal entry and use of narcotics probably limits itself. I can't imagine any medical professional providing limitless amounts of narcotics to a patient even before the Harrison Act was passed.

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