Drugs and the Criminal Justice System

III. The Harrison Narcotics Act

Efforts to enact strict laws were initially turned back by the pharmaceutical industry. In the end, a compromise was struck in which those who sold or otherwise dealt in narcotics were required to register with the government and pay a tax. This new law, the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, was ostensibly a tax act, but was clearly intended to limit the availability of narcotics, such as heroin, morphine, and opium. And, although cocaine is a stimulant and not a narcotic, it was treated as a narcotic in the law. Even today, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) annual report on the number of drug arrests lumps cocaine and narcotics into a single category.

At the time of the Harrison Act, the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) did not exist, and enforcement fell to the Treasury Department, which would later be called upon to enforce the prohibition against alcohol. The Harrison Act limited but did not completely ban narcotics. The wording of the act suggested that doctors could use their professional judgment to decide how much of a drug could be prescribed and to whom. The language was vague, however, and the meaning of the law had to be interpreted—a task that also fell to the Treasury Department. The result was the establishment of a precedent in which law enforcement officials had the final word on what was to be considered proper medical practice. This model is still followed today in that the DEA has the authority to decide which drugs may be used in medical practice, which drugs require a prescription, which doctors may write a prescription, which pharmacists may fill a prescription, and the volume of prescription drugs that pharmaceutical companies are allowed to produce. Thus, from the very beginning in the United States, law enforcement has been viewed as the primary tool for controlling the drug problem.

This was also a time when there were few federal crimes on the books, with nearly all criminal justice functions left in the hands of states. Consequently, drug law enforcement was a major component of the federal criminal justice system. By the late 1920s, for example, nearly one third of federal prison inmates were incarcerated for violating federal drug laws, more than for any other category of federal offense.

IV. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics

At first, enforcement of the Harrison Narcotics Act was the responsibility of a division within the Prohibition Unit of the Treasury Department. However, as alcohol prohibition became increasingly unpopular, and as scandals hit the Prohibition Unit, there was pressure for change. That change took place in 1930 when the Prohibition Unit was moved into the Justice Department and a new agency was formed within the Treasury Department specifically to deal with national and international issues regarding illicit drugs. The newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics was headed by Harry J. Anslinger, who had been the Assistant Commissioner of the Prohibition Bureau. Anslinger’s approach to the drug problem was to promote criminal enforcement and harsh penalties as a deterrent to drug trafficking and use. Congress was sympathetic to this approach and passed increasingly harsh penalties, and many state laws were even harsher.

The 1914 Harrison Act explicitly addressed cocaine and opiates, leaving the control of other drugs, including marijuana, up to the states. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics eventually had jurisdiction over marijuana with passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Today, while most think of cocaine and heroin when they think of illegal drugs, there are more drug arrests for marijuana than for cocaine and heroin combined.

Though there is a tendency to think of the era of the Bureau of Narcotics as one of only harsh punishments, there were glimmers of treatment. As regards the criminal justice system, the most notable of these treatment efforts was the creation of two prisons specifically designed to treat heroin addicts. These so-called narcotics hospitals were created in the mid-1930s and housed both inmates convicted on federal drug charges and addicts who voluntarily admitted themselves. Though opened with great fanfare and optimism, over time these facilities came to be seen as failures. For the most part, treatment occurred outside of the criminal justice system.

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