“FEAR Narcotic Drugs!” The Passage of the Harrison Act

By Anne Garner, Curator, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

Ad published in American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, volume 36, number 6, March 25, 1900.

Ad published in American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, volume 36, number 6, March 25, 1900.

One hundred years ago today, Congress approved the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act. The Act’s passage critically impacted drug policy for the remainder of the century, and the habits of physicians with regard to prescribing and dispensing medicine.

By 1900, use of narcotics was at its peak for both medical and non-medical purposes. Advertisements promoting opium- and cocaine-laden drugs saturated the newspapers; morphine seemed more easily obtainable than alcohol; and widespread sale of drugs and drug paraphernalia gained the attention of medical professionals and private citizens alike.1 State regulations failed to effectively curb distribution and use.2

Physicians and pharmacists recognized they had an image problem. In 1901, the American Pharmaceutical Association formed a committee to study the country’s drug problem and recommended the ban of non-medical drug use.3 The American Medical Association seconded the APA’s pitch and strongly advocated for federal legislation.4

Hamilton Wright. In Morgan, Drugs in America. A Social History 1800-1980.

Dr. Hamilton Wright. In H. Wayne Morgan, Drugs in America. A Social History 1800-1980, p. 99.

This groundswell in support of federal action among local medical professionals also had roots overseas. In the aftermath of the Spanish-American war, the U.S. inherited control of the Philippines, and with it a serious opium problem. An American missionary, Charles Henry Brent, convened a commission in 1903 that recommended narcotics be subject to international control.5 Roosevelt seized on these findings, recognizing an opportunity to improve relations with China. In 1908 he initiated an international conference in Shanghai to talk about the narcotics problem. The President sent Brent and Hamilton Wright, U.S. Opium Commissioner, to represent the U.S.6 Wright, an outspoken, charismatic, and controversial figure, was central to the eventual passage of the Harrison Act.

Passage of a federal law would not be easy. In April of 1910, at Wright’s behest, Representative David Foster proposed a bill banning the non-medical use of opiates, cocaine, chloral hydrate, and cannabis, with harsh penalties for violations. The purchase of patent medicines containing any of these ingredients would require tax stamps and strict record-keeping. Proponents of the bill stressed the link between criminalization and drug use. Despite Wright’s best efforts, the uncompromising Foster bill garnered strong resistance from manufacturers and druggists, and died in Congress.7

A clipping from the library's Healy Collection,  which contains 19th century images, mostly clipped from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News and Harper’s Weekly. Click to enlarge.

A clipping from the library’s Healy Collection, which contains 19th century images, mostly clipped from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News and Harper’s Weekly. Click to enlarge.

Two more international conferences followed, at The Hague in 1911 and 1912. Soon after, Wright renewed his commitment to pass federal anti-drug legislation. A new bill proposed by Tammany representative Francis Burton Harrison, again at Wright’s urging, looked very similar to the Foster bill. But after two years of negotiations in Congress, the final legislation incorporated several key compromises. Physicians could dispense medication to patients without record-keeping. Patent medicines with legal amounts of narcotic substances could be sold by mail order or in general stores. Cannabis and chloral hydrate were omitted from regulation. With these concessions, opposition from pharmaceutical and medical professionals softened, agreement was reached, and the bill was signed into law on December 17, 1914.8

The immediate impact of the Act’s passage was confusion. The law offered only vague implementation guidelines. Was it largely a taxation measure, or was it intended to monitor and regulate professional activity? The Act’s major ambiguity related to the authority of physicians to prescribe maintenance doses of narcotics to already-addicted patients. Two 1919 Supreme Court cases clarified the issue. U.S. vs. Doremus found the Harrison Act constitutional and validated the government’s ability to regulate prescription practices for addicts. Webb et al. vs. U.S. denied physicians the power to provide maintenance doses.

The Supreme Court decisions forced addicts to locate new sources. They turned to the black market, where they paid top dollar. Petty crime increased.9 Penalties for violation of the Harrison Act were harsh. In the early years of the law, conviction numbers were relatively low—most years fewer than 500—but by 1919, the year of the Supreme Court rulings, convictions showed a marked upward trend. By 1923, convictions were approaching 5,000 per annum.10

The effect of the legislation on addicts was not viewed unsympathetically by the medical establishment, or even by law enforcement. Even the head of New York’s dope squad, Lieutenant Scherb, seemed concerned: “Many of [the addicts] are doubled up in pain at this very minute and others are running to the police and hospitals to get relief….the suffering among them is really terrible.”11 Beginning in 1919, authorities and public health officials cooperated to develop 44 addiction recovery facilities. These new facilities were short-lived, and most had closed by 1921. Unpopular with the public, many shut down because the lion’s share of patients found themselves back on the streets again.

NYAM holds a scrapbook of newspaper clippings from 1926-1927 illustrating that drug abuse was still front and center in America’s mind well after the Harrison Act’s passage.12 Most articles framed narcotic users as criminals: what was once a legal pastime was now seen as a major threat to American society. One clipping quotes Harvey Waite of the Association for the Prevention of Drug and Narcotic Addicts of Michigan: “Drug addicts are a menace to the peaceful citizens of the United States because from them come the most notorious criminals and lawbreakers.”

From the library's scrapbook of 1926-1927 newspaper clippings. Click to enlarge.

From the library’s scrapbook of 1926-1927 newspaper clippings. Click to enlarge.

The Harrison Act’s most lasting impact was in how it shifted the public conversation from a discussion about regulating a legal activity to eliminating an illegal one. The Act would form the cornerstone of all drug legislation to come, including the Controlled Substance Act of 1970.


1. Musto, David F. The American Disease Origins of Narcotic Control. New York: Oxford, 1999. Pp. 3-8.

2. Morgan, H. Wayne. Drugs in America. A Social History 1800-1980. Pp. 101-102.

3. Morgan, p. 102.

4. Musto, p. 56-57.

5. Courtwright, David T. Dark Paradise Opiate Addiction in America before 1940. Cambridge: Harvard, 1982.

6. Morgan, 99-100.

7. Musto, 47-48.

8. Morgan, 106-108 and Musto, 59-61.

9. Hodgson, Barbara. In the Arms of Morpheus. The Tragic History of Laudanum, Morphine, and Patent Medicines. Buffalo: Firefly, 2001. P. 128.

10. Erlin and Spillane, pp. 44-45.

11. The New York Times, April 15, 1915.

12. [Narcotics]. Clippings from newspapers from Dec. 1926-Sept. 1932. [New York?, 1926-1932]. 3 v. Email history@nyam.org to request.

Chinese Opium Dens and the “Satellite Fiends of the Joints”

By Anne Garner, Curator, Rare Books and Manuscripts

Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) visits an opium den. Cinemax, 2014

Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) visits an opium den in The Knick. Cinemax, 2014

Dr. John Thackery passes through a number of dimly-lit opium dens in the heart of New York’s Chinatown during the course of The Knick. What were these dens really like—and who frequented them?

In the mid-19th century, the Chinatowns of America were largely isolated communities, populated by immigrants brought by labor brokers to work on the Central Pacific Railroad or other jobs. Many of these workers planned to return home after several years; there was little desire to assimilate. Scholar Gunther Barth has suggested that with the safety of a familiar culture came familiar vices.1

A large number of Chinese immigrants came from Canton, a region with a rich history of opium-smoking. As the Chinese presence spread east, opium dens cropped up in the Chinatowns of every major American city.

American Opium-Smokers Interior of a New York Opium Den/ Drawn by J.W. Alexander. [New York] : Harper and Brothers, Oct. 8, 1881. Courtesy of Images from the History of Medicine (NLM).

American Opium-Smokers Interior of a New York Opium Den/ Drawn by J.W. Alexander. [New York] : Harper and Brothers, Oct. 8, 1881. Courtesy of Images from the History of Medicine (NLM).

H. H. Kane wrote in 1882 that the first white American to smoke opium did so in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1868.2 Until then, opium smoking had been strictly confined to the areas of Chinese settlement. By 1875, the practice was widespread enough that San Francisco passed a law prohibiting opium dens. This ordinance was America’s first anti-narcotics law.

The San Francisco ordinance coincided with an increasing anxiety among whites in large urban areas that the low-paid Chinese would threaten wages and standards of living. At the time, the country was mired in a deep recession. The federal Page Act, passed the same year as the San Francisco law, similarly targeted Chinese immigrants, aiming to “end the danger of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women.”3

Beginning with Virginia City the following year, local ordinances banning opium-smoking quickly passed across the U.S. These laws were largely ineffective. Law enforcement, focused on prosecuting Chinese dens known to attract white clientele, only drove whites deeper into Chinatown, and to smoke at higher rates.4

As opium use among whites increased, community leaders began to signal a concern about the morals of white women. Philadelphia missionary Frederic Poole cautioned that white women exposed by the Chinese to opium-smoking were at risk of “a life of degradation.”5 In 1883, Reverend John Liggins wrote of the dangers of the many New York City dens found in Mott and Pearl Streets (still the heart of Chinatown today), and quoted Kane that the habit, learned from the Chinese, contributed to “the downfall of innocent girls and the debasement of married women.”6 The same year, Allen S. Williams wrote in an early book on the opium-smoking habit about New York’s Chinatown dens:

Chinamen flit noiselessly by in ghostly, fluttering garments, and startle the Caucasian intruder by the very suddenness of their unsympathetic companionship…. the Chinese opium joint…is run for the sole purpose of pandering to a vicious taste whose indulgence is injurious to society.7

On the left coast, The Wasp, a popular San Francisco paper, sent two “reporters” to that city’s Chinatown in 1881, and published their findings:

In reeking holes ‘two stories’ underground, where the light of heaven and healthy atmosphere never penetrate, we found human beings living—if it may be called living, which is at best but an existence—as contentedly as rats in a sewer, whose habitation theirs so much resembles. The opium smokers’ resorts were among the first visited…a person once there, he may well desire to make himself oblivious of such surroundings and raise himself to a temporary heaven of his own, but how white men, and even white women, can bring themselves to descend to such filthy holes, where the reeking slime courses down the walls and the air is heavy with foetid odors, is a mystery to any well-regulated mind.8

The Wasp article offers an especially disturbing example of how many Americans implicated the Chinese as a group with standards and moral habits far inferior to those of whites. As early as the 1880s, opium dens run by the French and even white American-born women could be found in New York and Philadelphia, but the imagery continued to portray them as exclusively Chinese-owned and -operated. “It’s a poor town now-a-days that has not a Chinese laundry, and nearly every one of these has its lay-out [pipe plus accessories],” wrote one white traveler in 1883.9

Fig. 2—Smoker's Outfit. In Opium-Smoking in America and China.

Fig. 2—Smoker’s Outfit. In Opium-Smoking in America and China.

The framing of opium smoking as a Chinese problem continued as the century drew to a close. Temperance advocates and moral reformers identified opium smoking with indolence and passivity, qualities out of sync with a culture that emphasized hard work and a fast-paced industrial society. These kinds of characterizations became an important way to generate public revulsion for an immigrant group perceived to threaten both economic and social stability, and to gain traction for legislative action.10

The antagonisms toward the Chinese and attendant immigration restrictions resulted in a Chinese immigrant population that decreased by 1920 to less than half of what it was in 1890.11 The last opium den in New York was raided in 1957. Decades before, many of Chinatown’s dens, largely abandoned because of the rise of opium derivatives morphine and heroin, had all but disappeared.


1. Courtwright, David. Dark Paradise. Opiate Addiction in America before 1940. Cambridge: Harvard, 1982. 68.

2. Kane, H.H. Opium-Smoking in America and China. New York: G.P. Putnam’s, 1882. 1.

3. Peffer, George Anthony. Forbidden Familes: Emigration Experiences of Chinese Women Under the Page Law, 1875-1882. Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 6 No. 1, Fall, 1986.

4. Courtwright, 79.

5. Courtwright, 78.

6. Liggins, John. The Spread of Opium-Smoking in America. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1883. 20.

7. Williams, Allen Samuel. The Demon of the Orient and his Satellite Fiends of the Joints. New York: [the author], [1883]. 12.

8. The Chinese in California, 1850-1925.

9. Courtwright, 73.

10. Musto, David F. The American Disease. Origins of Narcotic Control. New Haven: Yale, 1973. 294-300.

11. Courtwright, 85.