December 17 marks the 100-year anniversary of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, generally considered the beginning of the oppressive, expensive, and devastating drug war.
This year, more than eight major U.S. cities will be holding demonstrations today trying to get one simple message promoted: end the war on drugs. But what exactly is the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act and how did it discriminate against people who use certain drugs?
In the early 1900s the U.S. was becoming an important voice in international affairs. Issues surrounding opium consumption and production began to cause major problems globally, and the U.S. declared a need for an international opium conference. From this meeting came the first international opium agreement from the Hague convention in 1912, which “aimed to solve the opium problems of the far east” by eliminating opium supplies.
Two years later, led by Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, the Narcotics Tax Act surfaced in Congress. The supporters of the bill said very little about the dangerous effects of addiction, instead emphasizing the importance of upholding the new international agreement to eradicate opium.
In fact, the act on its surface was not prohibitive at all. It was “an act to provide for the registration of, with collectors of internal revenue, and to impose a special tax upon 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.”
Almost immediately, damaging effects were felt from the bill’s passing. A vaguely worded clause in the bill declared that doctors could no longer prescribe opiate-based drugs, since “addiction was not a disease.” This led to numerous doctors being targeted by police and eventually imprisoned. In turn, the cloudiness of wording led to underground market formation, resulting in criminal involvement by both users and producers of opiates and cocaine. Police enforcement began to go up, and quality of life for those using opiates and cocaine began to plummet.
The government also began an aggressively racist propaganda attack against cocaine-using black Americans and opium-using “Chinamen.” Hysterical media stories claimed that white women using these substances were running off with men of different races. Doctors were targeted for helping those in need, and citizens who previously were medical patients suddenly became criminals, forced to hang out in unscrupulous areas to attain their drugs of choice. In one fell swoop, the Harrison Act set the foundations of the drug war as we know it today.
This December 17, look around and see that not much has changed. Doctors are still targeted for supplying pain medications. Certain people using certain drugs are still treated as criminals and denied medical treatment for addiction. Racial disparities in drug related arrests are a bigger problem than ever.
It is time to get outside and show that you are fed up with the status quo. Recent marijuana legalization laws show hope, but we still have a long way to go.
This war is 100 years old, and that’s 100 years too many.
Jeremy Lesser is an intern with the Drug Policy Alliance.