High Five: Five Early Drug War Laws

The laws that shaped where drug policy is today.

Harrison Narcotics Act 

The Harrison Narcotics Act was signed by then-President Woodrow Wilson on Dec. 17, 1914 and took effect on March 1, 1915, establishing a federal drug tax designed to generate revenue and curb the free trade of drugs. It was approved via three bills, H.R. 1966, H.R. 1967, and H.R. 6282. The bills focused on strictly regulating the trade of cocaine, morphine, heroin, and opium, imposing taxes and restrictions on distribution of drugs without fully banning them. Before The Harrison Narcotics Act, you could buy heroin and cocaine at Sears (then Sears, Roebuck and Co.), or a bottle of Coca-Cola with a pinch of cocaine in it at a gas station with nearly zero oversight. It was mostly enforced on businesses run by Chinese immigrants and Black Americans.

Uniform State Narcotic Act of 1932

Anslinger delivering a lecture at Dickenson College, 1932.
Courtesy DEA Museum

The Uniform State Narcotic Law aligned state drug laws with federal law, first drafted in 1925 but adopted in 1932. Then-President Herbert Hoover signed it, fixing the loopholes in The Harrison Narcotics Act, and forcing state drug laws to adhere. Before then, state-level drug laws were often in conflict with one another. It was passed mostly due to the relentless lobbying of Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. In lobbying for the bill, Anslinger released announcements declaring that cannabis causes insanity and sexual assault. It was a major step in outlawing cannabis as a drug class at the federal level, but it was hard to enforce.

Marihuana Tax Act of 1937

H.R. 6385 was approved and became The Marihuana Tax Act on Aug. 2, 1937. The act was designed to blot out cannabis trade by establishing an impossible “tax” on the sale of cannabis. Cannabis users were taxed $100 per ounce—adjusted to $2,191.04 in 2024—unless they met a strict licensing criteria, with stamps to prove it, and that only reduced the taxes. Harry J. Anslinger’s early drug force, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics which predated the Drug Enforcement Administration, was in charge of enforcing the law. Samuel R. Caldwell and Moses Baca were the first two people who were arrested under the act just days after it took effect.

The Boggs Act of 1951

Courtesy Komorn Law

The Boggs Act of 1951 installed mandatory drug sentences—notably for cannabis convictions. For a first offense conviction for cannabis possession, it established a minimum sentence of two to five years in prison and a fine of up to $2,000. $2,000 in 1951, adjusted for inflation, would be $24,539.68 in 2024, and obviously no one could pay it. It was signed into law on Nov. 2, 1951, by then-President Harry S. Truman. On Jan. 4, 1952, law enforcement agents arrested about 500 people in one day in a series of federal raids based on the new law.

Reorganization Plan No. 2

President Richard Nixon in 1990.
Courtesy Shutterstock

On June 8, 1973, the U.S. House approved Reorganization Plan No. 2 after a push from then-President Richard Nixon. The bill created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on July 1, 1973, merging three agencies—The Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, the Office for Drug Abuse Law Enforcement, and the Office of National Narcotics Intelligence—into one mega-agency designed to stop the trade of drugs. They have failed so far, after more than 50 years of tactics.

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