Heroin has been destructive and addictive drug for decades and the disease of opiate abuse has only continued to grow in the U.S. The drug has not always been illegal however and was initially created and marketed with medicinal intentions.
When it was discovered to be addictive and dangerous for users in the early twentieth century, heroin gradually became one of the biggest sources of international crime with heavy trafficking throughout the world. It also continues to cause thousands of deaths every year from heroin overdoses and addiction problems.
In spite of its illegal status and the devastation it creates, heroin remains an easily obtainable and often abused drug worldwide.
Marketing Early Medicinal Heroin
The drug heroin is also called "diacetylmorphine" because it is produced from the acetylation of morphine which is derived from natural opium sources like poppy flowers. Diacetylmorphine was first synthesized in 1874 by Alder Wright, a chemist in England who experimented with morphine and mixing various acids to make a more potent version of the drug.
This early version of heroin was much more powerful than morphine but was not used as a narcotic until it was re-synthesized in 1898 by Felix Hoffman, a chemist working for a German chemical company now known as Bayer. His acetylated type of morphine was twice as powerful as morphine alone and at the time it was believed to be non-addictive.
Bayer began to market this medicine they called "heroin" from the German word "heroisch" meaning heroic because users demonstrated heroic actions when using the drug. Soldiers using the drug were said to charge the enemy with no fear. For a decade, the company sold heroin as non-addictive substitute for morphine and as a cough suppressant, chest and lung medicine. It was initially considered a highly effective drug until it was discovered that heroin was simply a faster acting version of morphine that was causing high rates of addiction.
Addiction to Heroin Begins to Grow
Heroin became regulated as a prescription drug in 1914 with the Harrison Narcotic Act, but many youthful abusers were able to obtain the drug illicitly especially in New York where many chemical companies were distributing heroin. By 1915 hospitals in the state had committed hundreds of young people who were addicted to the drug.
Most of the addicts were gang members giving heroin the reputation as a "vice of the underworld". People that were known to be addicted were no longer able to obtain heroin prescriptions so it became more popular among drug dealers. Around the 1920s, addicts began to discover that heroin had enhanced euphoric effects when it was injected with a hypodermic syringe rather than sniffing it.
New York addicts supported themselves by collecting scrap metal from industrial dumps, earning them the nickname "junkies". Heroin addiction was blamed for the sharp rise in homicides in New York which ultimately led Congress to ban all domestic manufacture of heroin in 1924.
Unfortunately, in spite of the ban heroin remained plentiful in the U.S. with organized criminals obtaining it through other countries until more restrictions through the League of Nations drove its manufacture underground. In 1970 the Controlled Substance Act made heroin a schedule I substance meaning it is a crime to possess the drug.
Heroin is still produced in other countries through the cultivation of opium. Heroin sold on the street can be especially dangerous because it is often mixed with other drugs and substances that can be harmful when injected into the body. Users may not be aware of the level of purity or other substances mixed with the drug. Throughout the world there are currently an estimated 50 million frequent users of heroin and synthetic drugs.