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Maia Szalavitz Maia Szalavitz

One Hundred Years Ago Today, Prohibition Began in Earnest. We’re Still Paying.


On December 17, 1914, Congress passed the Harrison Act, making nonmedical opium and cocaine illegal. It was really about punishment, not public health. And it set the tone for a disastrous century.

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As disasters go, it was a big one

Federal drug prohibition started in earnest 100 years ago today, with the passage of the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Tax Act. While on its face, the law appeared to tax and regulate opium and cocaine, it was intended—and enforced—as an absolute ban on the nonmedical use and sale of these drugs (and their derivatives) as well as on maintenance prescribing to addicted people.

It was the opening salvo—soon followed by our short, violent and crimogenic ban on alcohol—in what seemed until very recently to be an ever-escalating “war” on most other drugs. While prohibition was often said, and even believed, by many to be a fight to improve public health, it wound up subjecting those it claimed to want to help to an illegal market, prison, torturous treatments and even the deliberate poisoning of alcohol supplies by the government, which is believed to have killed up to 10,000 people. Today, thanks in part to the legacy of the Harrison Act, we are the world’s most prolific jailer, with 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners. And we also remain among the most avid consumers of drugs.

So what have we learned from a century of drug prohibition? First, that our drug laws began in racism and continue to reflect its corrosive influence. Let’s look at what led up to the passage of the act, during a period of American history that has been described by Yale historian David Musto as “the peak of lynchings, legal segregation and voting laws designed to remove political and social power” from African Americans.

The public health motivations behind the Harrison Act were murky, at best. By contrast, the very first national drug regulation law, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, required products to disclose their ingredients and was clearly designed to protect consumers. Before opiates were prohibited, simple labeling had already cut their sales by a third.

There were certainly concerns about addiction linked to over-the-counter sale of drugs like cocaine and opium—but this was not the focus of the debate over the law. In the early 1900s, the typical opiate addict was a white housewife who bought her drugs ostensibly as medicine, and yet the media spotlight mainly fell on black and Chinese men.

“Most of the attacks upon white women of the South are the direct result of the cocaine-crazed Negro brain,” testified one doctor, in congressional hearings aimed at drumming up support for the proposed law. A 1908 feature from The New York Times was headlined “The Growing Menace of the Use of Cocaine.” It stated that cocaine is “the most insidious of known narcotics—a drug that wrecks its victim more swiftly and surely than opium.”

The same article also claimed:

The use of coke is probably much more widely spread among Negroes than among whites. Heaven dust, they call it. Its use by Negro field hands in the South has spread with appalling swiftness and results. There is very little doubt that every Jew peddler in the South carries the stuff, although many states have lately made its sale a felony.

And a 1905 Times story, headlined “Negro Cocaine Evil,” quoted a Memphis judge who claimed that “the evils attendant upon the use of the drug…cover the whole catalogue of crime.”

A constant diet of this type of coverage increased support for state and federal prohibition laws, although statistics did not show heavier use of cocaine by blacks compared to whites.

But it wasn’t just blacks and Jews who were the objects of this prejudice: Fear and hatred of the Chinese workers who built the transcontinental railroads and were later seen as threats to American workers also played a role. Journalists and editors stoked fears that opium allowed or encouraged “Chinamen” to rape or seduce white women. Indeed, the same doctor who testified to Congress that cocaine led blacks to sexually assault white women also told the legislators and press that, “In Chinatown, in the city of Philadelphia, there are enormous quantities of opium consumed and it is quite common, gentlemen, for these Chinese, or ‘Chinks’ as they are called, to have as a concubine, a white woman.”

“Most of the attacks upon white women of the South are the direct result of the cocaine-crazed Negro brain,” testified one doctor, in congressional hearings aimed at drumming up support for the proposed act.

Clearly, our anti-drug laws were not then—and are not now—based on science. What’s worse, their racist impact remains considerable. Michelle Alexander notes in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness that biased enforcement of drug laws means that more black men are under criminal justice supervision today than were enslaved in 1850. And although blacks and whites use and deal drugs at comparable rates, African-American men are sent to prison for drug crimes at a rate that is ten times higher, according to the NAACP. As Alexander puts it, “[W]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

The coke beat at the "Times" Photo via

The coke beat at the “Times” Photo via

Another lesson of the Harrison Act involves the media: It was—and remains—too credulous about nonscientific claims made about drugs and too willing to spread stereotypes and propaganda. Over the past century, if the Times and other publications had simply searched their own archives during each new wave of drug panic, they would have found repeated instances of different drugs alternately being called the “most addictive” ever (or not), depending on whether there was a current crusade against them, rather than on new comparative medical evidence.

During the 1970s, they could have questioned their heroin coverage by looking at how cocaine was said to be worse than opiates early in the 1900s; during the 1980s, they could have looked at why the then-devil-drug cocaine was once again trumping the 1970s bad guy, heroin. They also could have focused on how harsh drug sentences had repeatedly failed during previous bouts of drug-related fear.

Instead, the Times ran stories like “Crack Addiction: The Tragic Toll on Women and Children” (1986) and a three-part front-page series, “The Crack Plague” (1988). Newsweek said crack caused “instantaneous addiction,” and, of course, was “rapidly spreading to the suburbs.” Hundreds of similar stories led up to the passage of tough mandatory minimum sentences for crack in 1986 and 1988, which still have not been completely repealed.

The crack “crisis” was marked by the same hysteria, and sometimes even the same language, as the panic that led to the Harrison Act—and included similarly racist albeit more veiled insinuations about the connections between black people and drugs.

Now, however, it seems as though the fever may finally be breaking at last. Four states and the District of Columbia have voted in the past few years to legalize the recreational use of marijuana—and although Congress may prevent DC from enacting its legalization, the same bill it passed to do so simultaneously barred the DEA from using its funding to go after medical marijuana users and sellers in the 23 states where it is now legal.

The state of California—in a ballot initiative that would have been unthinkable in the 1980s or 1990s—just voted to reduce penalties for possession of cocaine and heroin, making it a misdemeanor, not a felony. And President Obama has refused to crack down on the recreational marijuana states, saying that he does not think marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol.

The crack “crisis” was marked by the same hysteria, and sometimes even the same language, as the panic that led to the Harrison Act—and included similarly racist insinuations.

Today, even the Times has begun a campaign to legalize marijuana—although it still hasn’t cured itself entirely of hysterical drug coverage.

The final lesson of the Harrison Act is one of utter failure. We’ve tried prohibition for a century. Since the 1980s, we’ve spent over a trillion dollars on it, with an exponential increase in law enforcement spending and incarceration rates since then. And what have we got to show for it, in terms of the outcome people most want it to prevent?

Well, between 1980 and 1985, the first-ever large representative epidemiological survey of the population was done to see how common various mental illnesses including addictions were. It found that 6.1% of Americans could be diagnosed with a substance use disorder linked to illegal drugs.

The second time such a survey was done, between 2000 to 2005, the rate was 10.3%. Prohibition simply does not work.

If the media starts doing its job and informing us of the true facts, perhaps we won’t have to wait another hundred years to end the terrible legacy of the Harrison Act.

Maia Szalavitz is one of the nation’s leading neuroscience and addiction journalists, and a columnist at Substance.com. She has contributed to Time, The New York Times, Scientific American Mind, the Washington Post and many other publications. She has also published five books, including Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006), and is currently finishing her sixth, Unbroken Brain, which examines why seeing addiction as a developmental or learning disorder can help us better understand, prevent and treat it. Her last column for Substance.com addressed The New York Times‘ sensationalistic story about a white suburban mother “seduced” by heroin and the paper’s general “drug du jour” coverage.