Tennessee Anti-Narcotic Law of 1914

Tennessee’s first anti-narcotic law was largely the work of Dr. Lucius Polk Brown, Tennessee’s food and drug commissioner. It went into effect on January 1, 1914, and reflected the moral reform atmosphere of the Progressive era. The law went further than the Harrison Act, the existing national law, in that it limited dispensing or distribution of drugs to veterinary surgeons, dentists, pharmacists, and registered physicians who received a legitimate prescription. The law specifically applied to opiates and included a provision that allowed addicts to obtain a permit entitling them to maintain their habits by registering with the state. Supporters of the law believed that cutting off the supply would bring considerable suffering to poor addicts and drive drug traffic outside of the law. Tennessee’s permit system did not include cocaine because of the belief that it was habitual and not as dangerous as other drugs such as morphine.

According to Brown’s statistics, 2,370 addicts registered during the first year of the law’s operation. Addicts included all races and both genders, but two-thirds of the registrants were women. Brown found women prone to laudanum addiction, but–with the exception of laudanum–men used more drugs than women overall. Fifty-nine percent of registered male addicts were between the ages of twenty-two and fifty-five, which Brown ascribed to the commonly held view that men from the age twenty-five to thirty-five were most prone to take up “dissipations.” Polk found that over half of the active cases of addiction in Tennessee were due to poor administration of drugs by doctors, not the result of recreational usage. African Americans used fewer opiates and more cocaine than white men. In East Tennessee the ratio of addicts to nonaddicts was one addict in every 1,359, while in West Tennessee the ratio was one in only 928. Brown presented no figures for Middle Tennessee. Brown estimated that in 1914 approximately 5,000 addicts out of a national population of 269,000 lived in Tennessee.

The annual cost of the drugs used in Tennessee was placed at $145,000, “a sheer waste of money” according to Brown. The use of recently introduced heroin was mainly restricted to boys and men as a result of debauchery. Brown believed that “in every place where a number of boys and young men are employed together there will be a certain amount of heroin addiction.” He argued that the sale of heroin should be restricted drastically. Brown believed the “drug addict is . . . more to be pitied than censured, and every effort should be made to help him attain a fulfillment of the desire. . . . The drug addict is a sick man both physically and mentally, and should be . . . treated as a sick man and not as one always willfully delinquent.” (1)

Suggested Reading

James B. Jones Jr., “Selected Aspects of Drug Abuse in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Tennessee History, circa 1830-1920,” West Tennessee Historical Society Papers 48 (1994): 2-23; Margaret Ripley Wolfe, Lucius Polk Brown and Progressive d and Drug Control: Tennessee and New York City, 1908-1920 (1978)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Tennessee Anti-Narcotic Law of 1914
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 13, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018