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One hundred years of legislation, control and taxes: The Volstead Act, The Harrison Tax Act, and the politics surrounding chemical substances

By Charlotte B. Cerminaro
web posted November 23, 2020

It was during one of those long and tedious lectures in our high school U.S. History class when I first learned about the prohibition of alcohol, the Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment. In 1920, following several other failed attempts at creating an “ideal society” congress enacted the prohibition (overturning President Woodrow Wilson’s veto) and added the 18th Amendment to our constitution. The Volstead Act quickly followed as the legislature’s attempt to enforce the constitutional change. Buying, selling, importing, making (distilling) and drinking alcohol was prohibited by the federal government. We also know that prohibition was a resounding failure and it required the 21st Constitutional Amendment to repeal. But how does the Harrison Tax Act fit in, and what does all of this have to do with the modern-day “War on Drugs”?

During the 1800’s and early 1900’s there were a number of chemical substances commonly used, commercially available and manufactured for the general public in the United States. These substances were made with an exact, known quantity and were generally considered safe for adult consumption. Probably the most famous of such products, manufactured by the Coca Cola company and simply called, Coca Cola, the formula had a small amount of extract from the Coca plant, what we now call “cocaine”. These plants are native to Central and South America and, at that time, they could be legally imported or grown in the U.S. Another example of a legal and commercially available substance was Opium, derived from the oriental poppy. The vast majority was imported, legally, from Mexico but it was also manufactured in the USA. When any of these chemicals were part of a company’s formula, they were carefully weighed and measured for accuracy, consistency and, most of all, safety. This practice was similar to our modern-day liquor distilleries where the exact percentage and amount of alcohol (by volume) is calculated and regulated by state boards for consistency.

All of these practices are in stark contrast to illegally manufactured substances, such as “moonshine” and “crystal meth”, where the exact amount of active substance is unknown and the actual percentage by volume varies significantly. Quite possibly even worse is the fact that illegally manufactured substances are frequently “cut”, which dilutes the substance, increases profit for the seller, and many sellers cut the substance with dangerous, noxious and even poisonous chemicals. Talcum powder is one of the more common and least noxious, but it’s not uncommon for illicit substances to be cut with drain cleaner or bleach.

The dangers associated with consuming illicit substances is just the tip of the iceberg in our modern-day war on drugs. The prison system is overfilled, overstressed and overpopulated with non-violent offenders. The exact numbers and percentage varies but it’s not uncommon to have 45% of long-term prison inmates incarcerated for “drug offenses” only. This means that the inmate has committed absolutely no violence, no theft, and is often a first-time offender.

Frequently, the only offense(s) with which they’ve been charged and convicted is possession with intent to use, purchasing, growing or making a chemical substance for personal use. Previous to and during the time of the Harrison Tax Act (1914) this was not considered criminal activity and it was only regulated as a way of levying taxes and raising revenue for the centralized government. It would have been unthinkable to criminalize the market for usable and even needed pharmaceutical substances, when purchased and taken legally by adults.

Of course, all this changed. Again, with an air of moralizing, continuing efforts to control the populace, create an ideal society, and “weed out” what many politicians and commercial campaigns termed “undesirables” the federal government pronounced a war on its own citizens and their (dangerous) habits. Thus, the “war on drugs” became one of the biggest forms of revenue and the most offensive, racially discriminatory and divisive policy in history. Such terms as reefer madness were used to slander black people and to outlaw the use of marijuana. Ad campaigns and congressional lobbyists played to the idea that “fear sells”, and pressured legislation to outlaw all chemical consumption, claiming that white women were in danger as black people were particularly prone to this ‘reaction’. Of course, none of these claims could be backed by medical science or police investigation into actual criminal activity; but fear, plus heavy-duty moralizing, were all that was needed for the population to be sold on the idea that all chemical substances were “inherently evil” and that those who partook of them, even innocently, should be locked up with the most violent offenders. Thus, the long and very sad history of criminalizing chemical substances was effectively walled off from public view and scientific data.

Is there any end in sight for this doomed war? Some might say that the recent passage of a bill in the state of Oregon, decriminalizing many common “illicit” substances like cocaine, methamphetamines and heroin, is a step in the right direction. Throwing more money and more government agencies at the problem hasn’t worked yet. Our prisons are so full that some of the most violent and repeat offenders have been released long before their actual sentences were served. The answer isn’t more tax dollars or more prisons. It shouldn’t take years for other states to follow suit and turn back the clock, so to say, on a dim page of American history. ESR

Charlotte B. Cerminaro is a Juilliard-trained classical musician who, in addition to being a studio and orchestral musician, enjoys writing. © 2020

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