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Historical Insights The Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914

Cocaine was once marketed for children’s toothaches, and the Sears & Roebuck catalog advertised a syringe with cocaine for $1.50. October 1900. Credit: PhotoQuest/Archive Photos/Getty Images

The Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914

When the United States enacted a law regulating opiates and coca products in 1914, many women were already hooked on the previously legal substances and were arrested on charges stemming from their addiction.

The poisons of the late 20th century were hailed as panaceas in the late 19th century. Doctors prescribed morphine to cure alcoholism, and women became particularly susceptible to opiate addiction. Doctors commonly prescribed opiates for menstrual pain, and women used opiates at home as a substitute for alcohol. A 1911 study concluded that at least two-thirds of the opiate addicts in the country were women. The backlash came in 1914 when Congress approved the Harrison Narcotics Act, regulating opium, coca, and their derivatives. It was suddenly illegal to purchase certain over-the-counter cure-alls for everything from coughs to toothaches that contained those drugs. The courts also interpreted the law to prohibit doctors from prescribing opiates to sustain addiction. The New York Medical Journal observed that the “immediate effects” of the law “were seen in the flocking of drug [addicts] to hospitals and sanatoriums. Sporadic crimes of violence were reported too, due usually to desperate efforts by addicts to obtain drugs, but occasionally to a delirious state induced by sudden withdrawal.”