Long before opium and heroin addiction became a law enforcement problem, it was a major cause for social concern in the United States. By the late 1800s Americans were taking opium-based drugs with the same alarming frequency as they now consume tranquilizers, pain killers, and diet pills. Even popular children's medicines were frequently opium based. When heroin was introduced into the United States by the German pharmaceutical company, Bayer, in 1898, it was, as has already been mentioned, declared nonaddictive, and was widely prescribed in hospitals and by private practitioners as a safe substitute for morphine. After opium smoking was outlawed in the United States ten years later, many opium addicts turned to heroin as a legal substitute, and America's heroin problem was born,
By the beginning of World War I the most conservative estimate of America's addict population was 200,000, and growing alarm over the uncontrolled use of narcotics resulted in the first attempts at control. In 1914 Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Act. It turned out to be a rather ambiguous statute, requiring only the registration of all those handling opium and coca products and establishing a stamp tax of one cent an ounce on these drugs. A medical doctor was allowed to prescribe opium, morphine, or heroin to a patient, "in the course of his professional practice only." The law, combined with public awareness of the plight of returning World War I veterans who had become addicted to medical morphine, resulted in the opening of hundreds of public drug maintenance clinics. Most clinics tried to cure the addict by gradually reducing his intake of heroin and morphine. However, in 1923 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in United States vs. Behrman, that the Harrison Act made it illegal for a medical doctor to prescribe morphine or heroin to an addict under any circumstances. The clinics shut their doors and a new figure appeared on the American scene-the pusher.