One hundred years ago this week President Woodrow Wilson signed the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 and committed the federal government to combating the domestic drug trade. If any single event launched our modern drug war, this was it.

The Harrison Act aimed to ban nonmedical use of opiates and cocaine. Together with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, it federalized what till then had been a state-by-state skirmish against recreational drugs. 

So the story of America’s drug war unfolded first at the state and local levels. 

Consider cocaine, which arrived on American shores in 1884 as an Austro-German pharmaceutical. Newspapers marveled at the new wonder drug, which permitted painless eye surgeries on conscious patients. Soon came a trickle—then a stream—of reports of doctors and pharmacists hooked on cocaine. Because the drug was pricey and available mainly through medical channels, virtually every (and perhaps every) news story about recreational abuse for the next many years concerned whites.


Today there’s a certain historical irony at work, as laws permitting recreational marijuana take hold. The racial skewing of anti-drug law enforcement over the last several decades has prompted cries to liberalize our drug laws. So laws that rose up without racial roots now may topple because of their enforcement with an uneven hand.

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