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The History of Heroin

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When heroin is mentioned, people often think of a highly addictive, deadly and illegal drug. At one time, however, heroin was a legal drug, and was considered a highly respected remedy for numerous afflictions.

Of course, heroin lost its status as a wonder drug and eventually became the black sheep of the opiate family. Even so, understanding its origins, its past medical uses and its fall in popularity among medical professionals provides an important context when we talk about heroin today.

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Where Does Heroin Come From?

While heroin, itself, may have emerged only as recently as 1874, heroin is derived from “ancestor drugs” morphine and opium – both of which have a much longer global history.

Opium, heroin’s oldest ancestor, is believed to have been discovered in wild poppy fields bordering eastern Mediterranean mountains during the Neolithic age.

Opium, heroin’s oldest ancestor, is believed to have been discovered in wild poppy fields bordering eastern Mediterranean mountains at some point during the Neolithic age (between 10,200 B.C. and 2,000 BC). From there, heroin’s use and popularity continued to spread to Europe, India and China all through the 18th century.

In Europe, opium and its derivatives codeine and morphine were used as cure-all drugs for hundreds of years.

Starting in the 19th century, the dangers of morphine and codeine’s highly addictive nature became increasingly evident, and a widespread epidemic of opiate-derived drug addiction began.

English writer and Oxford graduate Thomas De Quincey published “Confessions of an English Opium Eater,” an autobiographical account of his laudanum addiction.  It’s believed that De Quincey’s writings on the potential dangers of opium helped to spur medical science to search for a non-addictive alternative for treating and reducing pain.1

The Discovery of Heroin

In 1874, an English researcher, C.R. Wright, first synthesized heroin by boiling morphine and acetic anhydride. His early testing of heroin – then known as diacetylmorphine – showed undesirable side effects such as anxiety, sleepiness and vomiting immediately following administration. Accordingly, he discontinued his research.

heroin ad

Over 20 years later in 1895, German scientist Heinrich Dreser and his colleagues at the pharmaceutical company Bayer continued Wright’s studies and declared diacetylmorphine successful in treating many common respiratory ailments.

The pharmaceutical company Bayer declared heroin a successful medical treatment for many common respiratory ailments.

Bayer began manufacturing diacetylmorphine and marketed it under the name heroin. It was then widely distributed and available in over-the-counter form.1,2

What Was Heroin First Used For?

Civil War

Heroin was first used for medicinal purposes.

Considered a miracle drug, it was used to treat headaches, colds and other common ailments.

Many doctors prescribed it to women suffering from premenstrual syndrome, hysteria and other so-called “female problems.” Most of heroin’s biggest users were rich, upper-class individuals.

Ironically, heroin was initially used as a safe solution to morphine addiction, which had become a growing problem following the Civil War when it was administered to soldiers intravenously.1,2

The Dangers of Heroin Emerge

As heroin’s popularity grew, so did its unrestricted distribution. It was available as an over-the-counter drug and was even marketed as a free sample in the mail.

Heroin was widely prescribed for various illnesses and was given to active morphine and codeine addicts as an alternative to – and as a solution for – their addiction. As one might imagine, this “miracle drug” mindset and distribution resulted in an alarming drug epidemic.

Heroin used to be available as an over-the counter drug and was even marketed as a free sample in the mail.

By 1924 – just three decades after manufacturing began – approximately 200,000 individuals in the United States were addicted to heroin.1

The 1924 U.S. Ban on Heroin

The unrestricted distribution of heroin led to an astronomical number of users addicted to heroin and a resulting rising crime rate. As legal and mental health concerns began to grow throughout the United States, legal authorities took note.

heroin illegal
Al Capone mug shot

By 1924, the New York deputy police commissioner reported that 94 percent of those addicted to drugs arrested for criminal activity were using heroin. Heroin and crime became synonymous. As a result, Congress unanimously passed a law banning the manufacture, distribution and import of heroin in the United States.1

Illegal Heroin Use in the U.S.

Heroin may have been legally banned in 1924, but as we already know – this ban did not totally wipe out all U.S. heroin use:

  • 1924: The United States Congress legally banned heroin’s manufacture, sale and importation.
  • 1925: The League of Nations was an international organization founded in 1920 to protect world peace. In 1925, it began to reduce and regulate the international production of legal heroin. Further restrictions were set on the manufacturing and export of heroin by the Geneva Convention, a set of international war rules made up of a series of treaties and protocols.1
  • 1930s: Crime syndicates take over the production and distribution of heroin.
  • 1931: The Limitations Convention restricted heroin production to nothing over the amount needed to fulfill medical and scientific purposes. On a global level, heroin’s total legal production sank to roughly 1,000 kilos by this time – compared to 9,000 kilos just 5 years earlier in 1926.1
  • 1939-1945 (World War II): Heroin’s purity decreased as border security made trafficking impossible. This increased security resulted in a severe reduction in U.S. supply of heroin. Most individuals struggling with heroin addiction were forced to involuntarily get clean. The number of those addicted to heroin plummeted from 200,000 to less than 20,000.1,2
  • 1940s: The Cold War brought a resurgence of heroin production and trafficking.1
  • 1950s and ’60s: Illegal heroin use became more widespread in beatnik and hippie culture.1,2
  • 1971: Congressman Robert Steel (R-CT) led an investigation of heroin use by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. President Nixon took on heroin as a priority in his drug policy agenda.2
  • 1980s and ’90s: Heroin purity improved and increased users’ likelihood of administering the drug via snorting or smoking.2
  • 1993: South America expanded from the cocaine market and began supplying large amounts of heroin.2
  • 2010: 3,036 deaths resulted from heroin overdose.3
  • 2013: 8,257 deaths resulted from heroin overdose.3
  • 2014: 10,574 deaths resulted from heroin overdose4. More than 1,300 deaths from opioids such as heroin were recorded in Pennsylvania alone in 2014, while over 1,000 opioid deaths occurred in Massachusetts. Connecticut experienced an 85 percent increase in heroin-related deaths.5

The World’s Major Heroin Producers

Heroin is derived from opium, which comes from the seeds of the poppy flower. From the 1930s through the 1950s, most of the world’s heroin was supplied through a collaboration between the Sicilian Mafia and Corsican gang members in Marseille, France – otherwise known as “The French Connection.”2

Heroin cultivation generally occurs in 3 major regions:

  1. Southwest Asia, “The Golden Crescent.”
  2. Southeast Asia, “The Golden Triangle.”
  3. Latin America.

Southwest Asia, “The Golden Cresent”

The Golden Crescent represents a region overlapping Western, South and Central Asia, covering mountainous terrains in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is the world’s largest illicit opium producer.

Afghanistan is the world’s largest illicit opium producer. A spokesperson from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported in 2013 that Afghanistan’s opium production continues to approach record levels.8

Southeast Asia, “The Golden Triangle”

The Golden Triangle is a region in Southeast Asia that covers 950,000 square kilometers that overlap the mountains of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. After Afghanistan, Myanmar ranks second internationally as the country with the largest illicit production of opium.9

What drives Myanmar to produce heroin? (6:31 min)

Latin America

How One Man Carried 2.2 Pounds of Heroin in His Stomach from Mexico to Ohio in 37 Hours

Afghanistan produces the majority of the world’s heroin; however, most of the heroin distributed and used in the United States comes from Latin America (both South and Central America). The traditionally less pure “black tar” heroin in our country most commonly comes from Mexico.

Heroin production in Columbia has decreased considerably since 2001 – however, production in Mexico is still high and continues to climb.6,7 

Generally speaking, these nations produce heroin as a source of economic gain or as a result of corrupt governments (or both).

Who Benefits from Heroin Sales?

Governments and political officials reap financial rewards from heroin’s distribution, while individuals who manufacture and distribute heroin depend on the narcotics trafficking industry to survive.

Political rebels fund their insurgencies with money gained from drug trafficking as well. In Afghanistan, drug traffickers provide economic support and weapons to the insurgency, and the insurgency protects the traffickers from government interference.7

U.S. Efforts Against Heroin Abuse

Currently, many U.S. efforts and programs are in place to reduce and treat heroin abuse.

National Heroin Recovery Programs Include:

  • Methadone clinics: These clinics dispense methadone, a drug used to mildly mimic and replace heroin. Methadone helps ease heroin withdrawal and help individuals maintain heroin abstinence.
  • Improved naloxone accessibility: Naloxone is a drug used to help prevent death in cases of heroin overdose. It works by stopping the effects of heroin.
  • Outpatient recovery programs: Outpatient services are designed to help those struggling with heroin addiction to follow a structured treatment plan as they live in their own homes.
  • Inpatient recovery programs: Many hospital-based inpatient recovery programs provide intensive, 24/7 overnight medical care during the process of heroin detox and recovery.
  • Residential treatment programs: Residential treatment programs offer a focused and supportive recovery environment by providing temporary housing alongside of attentive care and therapy. Many residential centers also provide supervised and medically-assisted detox options.
  • Sober living communities: These homes and communities offer those recovering from heroin addiction a safe and sober living environment that supports long-term recovery goals after rehab.
  • Collegiate recovery communities: These support groups are geared especially to college students seeking supplemental support through the heroin recovery process.
  • 12-step programs: 12-step programs are support groups in which meeting participants, surrounded with a strong sense of community, work through their steps together. 12-step programs such as Narcotics Anonymous provide supplemental and ongoing support during and after the heroin addiction treatment process.

There is also a slate of new national efforts resulting from President Obama’s 2015 policy on prescription opioid and heroin abuse.

Changes in US Healthcare

These strategies include:

  • Prescriber training for medical professionals to prevent opioid abuse and provide improved access to care.
  • Public service announcements.
  • Pharmacist training to administer and permission to dispense increased supplies of naloxone without prescription pursuant to a standing order.
  • Efforts to educate and prepare communities on heroin prevention and overdose response.11

International strategies to curb heroin use have included training programs, mentoring and anti-money laundering efforts in heroin source countries.7

Monetary incentives have also been offered to poppy farmers who choose legal lifestyles and means of income.

Monetary incentives have also been offered to poppy farmers who choose legal lifestyles and means of income. Finally, law enforcement within these heroin source countries has been more fully equipped to enforce legal consequences for traffickers.

Learn More and Get Help for a Heroin Addiction

If you or someone you love is struggling with a heroin addiction, help is available for you when you’re ready. Call to speak with one of our recovery advisors who can help you learn about your best next steps towards recovery.

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  1. Heroin: The History of a “Miracle Drug.” The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia.
  2. A Social History of America’s Most Popular Drugs. Frontline PBS.
  3. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Arlington, VA American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013.
  4. Overdose death rates. National Institute on Drug Abuse, December 2015.
  5. States Lack Accurate Statistics on Widespread Heroin Use. NPR Heroin in the Heartland Series, 21 May 2015.
  6. Heroin
  7. The International Heroin Market. Office of National Drug Control Policy.
  8. The Spoils of War: Afghanistan’s Multibillion Dollar Heroin Trade. Global Research
  9. Fuller T. Myanmar Returns to What Sells: Heroin. The New York Times, 3 Jan 2015.
  10. Centre for Research on Globalization, 25 May 2015.
  11. Drug Smuggling Route. Department of Narcotics Control, Bangladesh.
  12. FACTSHEET: Obama Administration Announces Public and Private Sector Efforts to Address Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Use. The White House, 21 October 2015.

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