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Heroin: The Great Lie

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by guest blogger Liz Greene. Greene is a dog-loving, beard-envying history nerd from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. You can catch up with her latest misadventures on Instant Lo or follow her on Twitter @LizVGreene.

Like so many of our modern “wonder drugs”, heroin was born of necessity. Unfortunately, the promise of a non-habit forming solution to morphine addiction turned out to be false, and a new national dependence was formed. This is the story of heroin.

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In the 1800’s, opium use had taken a toll on the country. With doctors prescribing opium and its derivatives for everything from coughing to “women’s troubles,” many patients had become addicted to the much used cure-all, leaving doctors and pharmacists scrambling for an alternative.


In 1804, German pharmacist Friedrich Sertürner isolated the active alkaloid, morphine, from opium. Sertürner started marketing the drug to the general public not only as an analgesic, but also as a treatment for opium and alcohol addiction. In 1827, German pharmaceutical company Merck began to commercially manufacture morphine.

By the mid 1850’s, the drug was available in the United States, becoming extremely popular within the medical profession as its ability to treat severe pain was considered nothing short of miraculous. During the Civil War, many soldiers exposed to morphine during the course of treatment for their injuries became morphine addicts. Within a decade of its arrival to the United States, morphine had become a major epidemic. Doctors were again faced with the problem of finding a sufficient alternative.

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A New Discovery

In 1874, while attempting to unearth a safer pain medication to replace morphine, a chemist named C.R. Alder Wright discovered a new chemical compound — diacetylmorphine.

After testing the compound on his dog (and nearly killing it in the process), Wright concluded the drug was toxic. He published his findings in a chemistry trade journal and then tucked the formula away in his notes.

About two and a half decades later, Heinrich Dreser, a chemist at Bayer Pharmaceuticals, discovered Wright’s formula in the Chemical and Pharmaceutical Journal. With the objective of producing codeine in mind, Dreser asked his colleague Felix Hoffman to duplicate Mr. Wright’s experiment. Instead of codeine, the experiment produced an acetylated form of morphine — two times more potent than morphine itself. The head of Bayer’s research department based the name of the drug on the German word heroisch, which means “heroic”. Thus, heroin was born.

The drug was presented as a cough, chest and lung medicine to the Congress of German Naturalists and Physicians in 1898. At the time, respiratory diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis were the leading causes of death, and in the days before antibiotics or vaccines, doctors could only prescribe narcotics to alleviate the sufferings of patients. There was, therefore, a considerable market for the highly effective new drug.

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A Familiar Problem

Starting in 1898 (and continuing until 1910), Bayer marketed heroin as being a non-addictive substitute for morphine, as well as a cough suppressant. Despite Bayer’s claims, heroin quickly bred one of the highest rates of addiction among users.

In East Coast cities, a substantial population of recreational users appeared. Some supported their habit by collecting and selling scrap metal, giving rise to the nickname “junkie.” By 1913, after a rash of heroin-related admissions to New York and Philadelphia hospitals, the habit-forming dangers of heroin were apparent to the U.S. government. Bayer was forced to stop selling the drug in the U.S.

In 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act passed in an effort to control the sale and distribution of heroin and other opioids. Under this act, the drug was still allowed to be prescribed and sold for medical purposes. However, in 1924, the United States Congress banned the sale, importation, or manufacture of diacetylmorphine. In 1970, America passed the Controlled Substance Act, listing heroin as a Schedule I substance.

Unfortunately, the appearance of heroin played a crucial role in creating the link between drug abuse and crime. As legislation against opiates gathered force after 1914, morphine addicts who wished to continue their habit switched to heroin. Once legal channels of supply closed, criminal gangs began to monopolize the trade. By the end of the 1930s, the Mafia was involved, and the illegal drug trade was born.

Heroin in the 21st Century

Even as medical science advances and the world moves on from the patent medicines of the past, heroin is still is a major problem in the United States. In fact, it’s reached near epidemic levels. In a 2013 study, 517,000 people reported that they had used heroin in the last year, or had a heroin-related dependence. Between 2012 and 2013, heroin-related overdose deaths in America increased 39% across all populations.

What’s responsible for the rise in heroin use? It’s quite possible that prescription painkillers bear some of the blame. According to the CDC, people who are addicted to prescription opioid painkillers are 40 times more likely to be addicted to heroin. Heroin is cheaper, prescription free, and offers a similar high, making it incredibly tempting to switch.

In order to loosen heroin’s grip on the population, a number of changes will have to take place. Doctors need to prescribe pain killers responsibly, states need to implement prescription drug monitoring programs, and the federal government needs to increase access to substance abuse treatment (even more than has already been done under the Affordable Care Act). Only then can we start to rid our country of this insidious drug.


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