From Harrison to Volstead: How Prohibition Laid the Foundation for the War on Drugs

The Killer Drug - Marijuana Propaganda

Beginnings of the War on Drugs

In my previous article, the first of this series, we began a discussion of the War on Drugs ™ by highlighting some of the failures of its close historical precedent, Prohibition. Not only are there parallels between the two that are quite instructive; in a sense, Prohibition begat the modern drug war. This is not to say that the War on Drugs™ began with the Eighteenth Amendment; indeed, it began with the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, although some posit that it began with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. While we will look at the differences between the two in a moment, the important thing to remember about both the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Harrison Act is that they were both supply side legislation, intended to control the supply of drugs in the marketplace.

Drug Use in a Post-Civil War America

In the final years of the nineteenth century, addiction to psychotropic drugs was increasingly seen as a major societal issue.  Opium had become a popular pastime after the Civil War, with cocaine following suit in the 1880’s. Morphine was used in a wide variety of medications, while respiratory illnesses were often treated with heroin. Cocaine was also used in a wide range of health drinks, as well as the popular soft drink, Coca-Cola.  It didn’t take terribly long for local governments to notice that they had a problem on their hands, and by the end of the century, local governments began banning opium dens and the importation of opium. In 1906, the federal government passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, which, among other things (such as laying the foundation for the Food and Drug Administration), required drug labels to list items that were deemed addictive or dangerous; alcohol, morphine, opium, and cannabis were among these items[3]. In a way, both the Eighteenth Amendment and the War on Drugs™ found a philosophical precursor in this Act.

The Government Gets Involved

In 1914, the Harrison Act took government intervention a step further. Rather than simply requiring the proper labeling of products containing potentially addictive narcotics, the Harrison Act restricted the sale of such items. In essence, the Act required anyone engaged in the importation, production, manufacture or sale of cocaine and opium-based products to register with internal revenue collectors for the purpose of imposing a special tax on the distribution of these products. This did not make cocaine and opiates illegal; rather it restricted the distribution thereof to those firms and individuals who could afford the onerous registration fees and high taxes. While the underlying purpose of the Harrison Act was to impose transaction costs so high that the distribution of cocaine and opiates disappeared, and enforcement on physicians and other providers could be harsh, it still provided some wiggle room by allowing the substances named therein to remain legal.

Prohibition as the True Beginning of the War on Drugs

Although, then, previous laws limiting “intoxicating or addictive” substances existed prior to the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, the Amendment was the first federal law that explicitly production, importation, and distribution of a particular substance, albeit with certain exceptions, as for sacramental and medicinal purposes. Bowing to political pressure from interest groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, the legal definition of an intoxicating beverage was both arbitrary and extreme; anything containing ≥ 0.5% alcohol was included in the banned substances regime[2]. Whereas the Pure Food and Drug Act simply required labeling, and the Harrison Act attempted to control supply via the imposition of registration fee and taxes, the Eighteenth Amendment completed the supply-side circuit, making the production and sale of a substance a crime.

Prohibition Legislation Begets Anti-Drug Legislation

It is for this reason I posit that although drug laws existed prior to Prohibition, it was Prohibition that birthed the modern War on Drugs™.  Agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which was charged with enforcing the increasing criminalization of drugs, codified by laws such as the Boggs Act of 1951 and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956 were the natural offspring of Prohibition-era relics such as the Volstead Act and the Bureau of Prohibition (the Bureaus of Prohibition and Narcotics each being, not surprisingly, under the purview of Treasury). From targeting pharmacists and physicians deemed irresponsible in their dissemination of addictive substances, public policy had now swung towards making users criminals as well

Anti-Drug Propaganda

Much as with the stories of alcoholic-induced miscreants who flew into criminal rages (or, at the least, intoxicated mischief), government propaganda justifying these draconian laws were sensational and bizarre. According to John C. McWilliams[1], Bureau head Harry J. Anslinger even went so far as to claim that marijuana caused users to become uncontrollably enraged, helpless but to engage in violent crimes. That this was a ridiculous claim with no valid scientific study to back it hardly mattered. Anslinger said that drugs were a danger to public health and safety, and it was so.

For sake of relative brevity, we shall save further talk of parallels between Prohibition and the War on Drugs™ until the next article in this series, as well as – time and space permitting – beginning a discussion on social costs.


[1] McWilliams, John C. 1990. The Protectors: Harry J. Anslinger and the Federal Bureau. Newark: University of Delaware Press.

[2] Skidmore, Max J. 2012. “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition Daniel Okrent. New York: Scribner, 2010.” Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA) 35 (1): 82-84. doi:10.1111/j.1542-734X.2011.799_5.x.

[3] Young, James H. 1989. Pure Food: Securing the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.


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