Dynamics of intervention in the war on drugs: The buildup to the Harrison Act of 1914

Audrey Redford, Benjamin Powell

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 accelerated the war on drugs in the United States and led to many unintended results that spurred future interventions. It was a piece of a greater dynamics story that began after the Civil War, starting with moderate tariff changes and treaty agreements, leading to the ban of importation on a single substance, smoking opium, to a single subsection of the U.S. population coupled with an increased demand for opiates to ail daily annoyances and pains. Government officials thought that intervention on a federal level would help to correct for what they perceived to be failures of the market. The problems the Harrison Act sought to correct, such as, increased drug importation, increased drug use, over-prescription of medicine, and criminals involved in the drug trade, were either entirely brought about or exacerbated by previous federal interventions into the smoking opium or other opiates markets. Each of these federal interventions created unintended consequences that necessitated, from the government's perspective, future interventions to correct these errors, creating a vicious cycle. By looking back at the late nineteenth century for the origins of drug intervention and prohibition, we can see how moderate changes in tariff rates or bans in subsections of the market can have unintended consequences that force the hand of future policymakers to do something to correct for perceived market failures.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)509-530
Number of pages22
JournalIndependent Review
Issue number4
StatePublished - Mar 1 2016


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