A Complete History of Heroin
Heroin is perhaps the most notorious of the opiates. Highly addictive and synonymous with the so-called druggies on the street, it’s a drug that is commonly abused and seldom understood. It’s also used in the clinical setting where it’s known as diamorphine, diacetyl morphine, or morphine diacetate, but it’s mainly used as a last resort for end-stage pain. But how did heroin come about? What made it so widespread? After all, there are multiple drugs that are more effective, but people come back to heroin like a long-lost love. And in a strange way, it is.
In the beginning was the opium poppy. Its green stalks and white flowers—not red—dotted the landscape. Someone, presumably with a particularly enquiring mind, decided to eat one many thousands of years ago, and in their blissed-out state, they realized they’d stumbled onto a valuable crop.
“Highly addictive and synonymous with the so-called druggies on the street, it’s a drug that is commonly abused and seldom understood.-Rehabs.com
The Sumerians noted the poppy in their texts, and the Minoans detailed a method for extracting the latex out of the poppy. The ancient Greeks called this latex opium, which is where we get the word opium from. For many centuries, opium was the only real form of pain control available, and it did this admirably. With the rediscovery of laudanum in the sixteenth century, Western medicine had a decent method of controlling pain, although its effects were somewhat variable. However, addiction was a constant risk, although few cared about it. In the nineteenth century, people started realizing that addiction was a serious problem, and this issue came about because of the American Civil War.
The reason was morphine.
Morphine was isolated by a German chemist in 1804. We use the term isolated because it was already present in opium latex—it’s one of the many chemicals that contribute to opium’s sedative or narcotic effects. Friedrich Sertürner was the man’s name, and he named it morphine after the Greek god of dreams, Morpheus. It made people feel happy and sent them to sleep. Fans of the Matrix trilogy might recognize the name as the man who awakens Neo.
Morphine became widely distributed in the mid-1810s, and people quickly realized it was different from the usual quackery that was rampant throughout clinics and doctors at the time. It actually had an effect, unlike many of the pills and potions prescribed, and it could be given in precise and measureable quantities. The company that produced it, Merck, became huge, and the invention of the hypodermic needle in 1857 meant the drug could be given to almost anyone.
And from 1861 to 1865, it was.
The American Civil War saw the biggest loss of life the US has ever seen. Over a million people were killed, and approximately 60,000 lost limbs. Morphine saved many of their lives, as well as better surgical procedures. However, addiction became part and parcel of many soldiers’ lives, and these men became hooked on the potent analgesic.
Chemists at the time were making discoveries everywhere. They rapidly realized they could make drugs from all sorts of unlikely sources, including foxgloves (digoxin) and cinchona trees (quinine). However, extracting drugs was relatively simple. Making new, more effective drugs became the goal.
Heroin was first synthesized in the UK in 1874. C. R. Alder Wright boiled up morphine for a couple of hours with another chemical and realized he’d created something slightly different. He sent it away to be analyzed, and the chemical was injected into dogs and rabbits. The laboratory performing the tests noted it created great sleepiness in the animals.
“Heroin had been reborn, and it was named because it made people “heroic.”-Rehabs.com
It was then put on a shelf somewhere and forgotten.
Bayer had been founded by a chemist of the same name, and the company originally manufactured chemicals for the dye industry. Most people have worn one of Bayer’s creations: indigo. This color is used predominately for jeans. Thanks to the depression of the clothing market in the mid-1860s, the company began to diversify into drugs and other chemicals.
Heroin really came into prominence when a chemist, Felix Hoffman, was ordered to try to make an acylated version of morphine in 1897. Basically, he’d been instructed to add ethanol to the molecule, which is not quite as simple as it sounds, but he worked it out. The idea was to make a molecule that was as potent as morphine but as addictive as codeine. Instead, he ended up with a compound that was almost twice as effective as morphine, but, of course, it was twice as addictive. Heroin had been reborn, and it was named because it made people “heroic.”
It wasn’t long before this enhanced form of morphine was marketed by Bayer. The company labeled it as a cure for morphine addiction, something that was desperately needed at the time. Unfortunately, heroin turns into morphine in the body, so effectively it was simply morphine that acts a lot quicker.
Oddly enough, Bayer created another drug a year later that became one of the most commonly used painkillers of all time: aspirin.
Back then, of course, heroin could be sold anywhere, and it was. Those originally taking morphine would be given heroin, and they’d never want morphine again. In a way, it certainly removed the morphine addiction, but Bayer quickly realized it had cocked up when people started realizing it had merely replaced the morphine addiction with a heroin addiction. In 1899, the first instances of heroin tolerance were recorded, with a physician noting that after a while, it took more of the drug to elicit a response.
Kits containing morphine, heroin, or even cocaine were sold worldwide, and these kits would contain a syringe and a couple of vials of the drug. In the First World War, these kits would be sent by concerned wives and family so their loved ones could get the best treatment available. Again, this created a large number of addicts coming back from the Western Front.
In 1914, heroin was restricted in the US by the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, which was passed thanks to apocalyptic warnings about various groups (blacks, Chinese, and Mexicans) performing unspeakable acts of murder and mayhem when they got their hands on drugs, especially “seducing” honest white women. Of course, the average opiate user in 1914 was white, was female, and had money—they were prescribed opiates to control menstrual pain. The law was interpreted to ban maintenance doses of heroin as well.
In 1925, the League of Nations, a somewhat toothless precursor to the United Nations, banned nonmedical use of opiates, and the US government had already banned domestic manufacture a year before. Heroin and morphine use rapidly subsided, and by 1945, they were at a tenth of their original levels. A persistent underground culture still used opiates recreationally.
The ban produced a large number of outlaws whose main crime was to be addicted to an opiate and not want to undergo withdrawal. Some of those in 1920s New York made their livings from salvaging scrap from local heaps; they were nicknamed junkies. Authorities regularly reported murders as being caused by heroin use—how many of these were actually due to addicts is unknown; however given the paranoia that developed at this time, it seems likely that heroin addiction was overplayed in many of these cases.
By this time, other opiates had been synthesized, and they were replacing heroin. Oxycodone (1916), hydrocodone (1920), and hydromorphone (1924) had all been discovered and were starting to be produced in labs across the world as alternatives to heroin and morphine. Methadone would follow in 1937. Heroin addiction would long plague society, however, and scientists and medical professionals would still look for a cure. While doctors could prescribe doses to maintain an addiction, few drugs were available that could stop an overdose or gradually help wean an addict of heroin. Methadone would help, but it wasn’t until Sanyo’s discovery of naloxone in the ’60s that the first of the drugs that really helped addicts would start to arrive. Countering pain would always be an issue with heroin addiction, but the invention of benzodiazepines in the mid-1950s helped to a degree with that.
Heroin users could gradually wean themselves off in a chemical haze. However, benzos themselves are rather addictive, and this would substitute one issue for another. After naloxone, more drugs to counter addiction arrived. The deaths of Jimi Hendrix (barbiturates mixed with alcohol) and Janis Joplin (heroin) in 1970, both aged 27, would shock the world, but they inspired more research. Buprenorphine and naltrexone would be discovered in the ’80s and ’90s respectively, both being key to weaning addicts off opiates. In 1987, drug addiction was formally recognized as a disease by the American Medical Association and numerous other agencies. Although the AMA has stated this since 1956, it wasn’t until the majority of medical agencies at the state, federal, and national level sat down in the late ’80s that consensus was achieved. In 2004, the World Health Organization concurred.
To those addicted to heroin, this would be a major breakthrough, and hopefully, it will change public attitudes to addiction. While many people are still resistant to the idea that heroin addiction is a disease and not wholly a matter of choice or morals, the number who accept it as a condition is slowly rising. To know more about the effects, symptoms and treatment of heroin abuse or addiction, call us today at .