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 This act has largely been superseded by the Controlled Substances Act, which was passed in 1970.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.