Ironically touted a “non-addictive” painkiller upon its commercial release in 1898, heroin has earned its name as one of the most addictive substances known to man. It was the lie to trump all lies, and its history tells the dark tale of a hero turned villain in a world of fools.
From Opium to Morphine
Opium was the forefather of all narcotic drugs (also known as opioids or opiates). Derived from the sap of opium poppies, the drug has been used since the dawn of civilization. The earliest recorded use of opium was around 3400 B.C. and it was popular among Mesopotamians, Egyptians and Persians, eventually spreading to Europe, India and China.
Opium was used in the United States during the eighteenth century to treat cancer pain, tetanus spasms, and the pain of menstruation and child birth. It was only towards the beginning of the nineteenth century that its addictive properties became known, and doctors began seeking alternatives.
Morphine and codeine were the first opioids to be synthesized from opium. The addictive effects of morphine were unknown, so it was initially offered as a treatment for opium addiction. Its euphoria was ten times that of opium, however, and as the years passed, morphine abuse soared.
Heroin: the Be-All and End-All
An English chemist created heroin from morphine in 1874, but the Bayer Pharmaceutical Company made it famous in 1898. It was supposed to be the cure for morphine addiction, but physicians and addicts were fooled again and soon discovered the highly addictive effects of heroin. When it was finally classified as an illegal drug in the United States, it found its fans on the streets where it was sold as a white or brown powder or a black, sticky substance known as black tar heroin.
Today’s heroin is watered down by fillers like sugar, starch, powdered milk, caffeine or talc, the purpose being to increase profits for dealers. Pure heroin appears to be making a comeback, although reports have not been verified.
Devastation of the Heroin Epidemics
Two major heroin epidemics occurred in the United States during the twentieth century. The first started right after World War II, with the highest incidence occurring in the late ’40’s and into the ’50’s. The second swept the nation during the ’70’s, probably as a result of the Vietnam War. Underage American soldiers were probably inclined to buy heroin since alcohol was illegal for those under the age of 21.
Unfortunately the United States appears to be in the middle of a drug epidemic of unprecedented proportion. While nearly half a million Americans are addicted to heroin, that number pales in comparison to those who are hooked on pharmaceuticals. Thanks to heavy marketing by wealthy drug companies, prescription opioids like OxyContin and Vicodin have become the go-to for pain management. They may be legal, but they are not exempt from addiction.
Experts speculate that the high numbers of heroin addiction are due to prescription opioid addiction. Teachers, priests, doctors, nurses and housewives are becoming heroin addicts as it is a cheaper, more easily-acquired version of prescription painkillers.
Opioids (also known as narcotics) are some of the most addictive drugs on the planet. They have been holding people in their grips for more than five thousand years. The situation with prescription drugs is not one to be ignored—for as we can learn from the history of heroin, things are not always as they seem when it comes to drugs.