"The use of morphine in the place of alcohol is but a choice of evils,
and by far the lesser."
Cincinnati Lancet-Clinic. 1889
"Heroin will take the place of morphine
without its disagreeable qualities."
New York Medical Journal. 1901
What do you really know about the history of heroin in America? I'm sure most people believe the first shipments of the addictive substance were illegally transported into the country to satisfy the salacious desires of the criminal underworld to make huge profits while addicting dupes into easy marks craving the opiate. Those who believe this version of the birth of the drug in America couldn't be further from the truth. Indeed, the early history of heroin may surprise the reader. It is part of the complicated American history of legal substances that became the foundation of an epidemic of addiction.
Heroin was actually born out of a need to cure another drug problem that plagued the world in the 1800s: opium addiction. According to Narconon Internation, opium was used regularly in the United States by a wide variety of individuals from cowboys to housewives, and even children, for medicinal purposes and for the euphoric effects that many users seek from heroin today.
Then, in the late 1800s, the use of opium – and its derivative, morphine – was found to be causing terrible addictions. During the civil war the number of people that were treated for their war injuries sky rocketed and tens of thousands of confederate and northern soldiers became morphine addicts. The United States was plagued with a major morphine epidemic in just over 10 years time.
When plant-derived drugs became available in purified form, chemists were able to modify them to form new molecules that might prove more effective, or perhaps safer to use. In the later 1890s, Heinrich Dreser, head of the pharmacological laboratory at the product-hungry Bayer Company in Elberfeld, Germany, and his colleagues adopted this strategy to produce for Bayer two of the most famous drugs in the world today: Heroin, made by adding two acetyl groups to the morphine molecule, was followed a year later by another acetyl derivative of a painkiller from drugs; the second natural drug was salicylic acid and the Bayer derivative was names ‘Aspirin’.
The first clinical results for heroin were so promising that it was considered a wonder drug. By early 1898 was testing it on sticklebacks, frogs and rabbits. He also tested it on some of Bayer's workers, and on himself. The workers loved it, some, in retrospect ironically saying it made them feel "heroic" (heroisch). Painful respiratory diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis (consumption) were then the leading known causes of death, and in the days before antibiotics or the BCG vaccine, doctors could only prescribe narcotics to alleviate the sufferings of patients who otherwise could not sleep.
In November 1898, Dreser presented the drug to the Congress of German Naturalists and Physicians, claiming it was 10 times more effective as a cough medicine than codeine, but had only a tenth of its toxic effects. It was also more effective than morphine as a painkiller. The Bayer Company began to produce it in 1898 on a commercial scale.
Heroin was originally marketed as a safe, non-addictive substance for morphine and for the treatment of many illnesses. Bayer sent out mailshots and free samples by the thousand to physicians in Europe and the United States. The label on the samples showed a lion and a globe. (There is a notorious brand of Burmese heroin, Double Globe, that uses remarkably similar packaging today.)
One year after beginning sales, Bayer was producing about a ton of heroin a year and exporting heroin to 23 countries. By the turn of the 20th century, heroin was available as an over-the-counter home remedy, complete with a hypodermic needle. Even manufacturers of cough syrup were soon lacing their products with Bayer heroin. Soon, there were heroin cough lozenges, heroin tablets, water-soluble heroin salts, and a heroin elixir in a glycerine solution.
"It (heroin) possesses many advantages over morphine," wrote the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in 1900. "It's not hypnotic, and there's no danger of acquiring a habit."
("How Aspirin Turned Hero." opioids.com/heroin/heroinhistory.html. September, 1998)
Believe it or not, in the early 1900's the philanthropic Saint James Society in the U.S. mounted a campaign to supply free samples of heroin through the mail to morphine addicts who were trying give up their habits.
Unfortunately, heroin is still an opiate drug derived from the same sources as pure opium and morphine. Users "discovered" the euphoric properties of heroin. And, it turned out that repeated administration of heroin resulted in the development of tolerance. Along with that tolerance, patients experienced dependency and eventual addiction.
In the early 1900s, doctors and pharmacists begin noticing that patients were consuming large amounts of heroin containing cough remedies. By 1902 - when heroin sales were accounting for roughly five percent of Bayer's net profits - French and American researchers were reporting cases of "heroinism" and addiction. And, as soon as 1903, heroin addiction in the United States had risen to alarming rates.
In an article in the Alabama Medical Journal (1903) titled "The Heroin Habit Another Curse," G.E. Pettey declared that of the last 150 people he had treated for drug addiction, eight were dependent on heroin.
Nevertheless, other physicians remained reluctant to abandon this highly effective drug. In 1911, J.D. Trawick could still lament in the Kentucky Medical Journal: "I feel that bringing charges against heroin is almost like questioning the fidelity of a good friend. I have used it with good results."
The waves of immigrants from Europe introduced the habit of snorting heroin known as “sniffing” also called “insufflation and intranasal use." This method of use places the drug into the nasal capillaries and then the central nervous system in about 5-8 minutes. Moreover, heroin addicts were split evenly between “sniffers and shooters” until around the 1920’s.
The Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906, regulating the labeling of products containing Alcohol, Opiates, Cocaine, and Cannabis, among others. The American Medical Association approved heroin for medical use though with strong reservations about a "habit" that was "readily formed." The law went into effect January 1, 1907.
In 1909, the first federal drug prohibition passed in the United States outlawing the importation of opium. It was passed in preparation for the Shanghai Conference of 1909, at which the US pressed for legislation aimed at suppressing the sale of opium to China. Heading the U.S. delegation were Dr. Hamilton Wright and Episcopal Bishop Henry Brent. Both tried to convince the international delegation of the immoral and evil effects of opium.
Then, in 1910, after 150 years of failed attempts to rid the country of opium, the Chinese were finally successful in convincing the British to dismantle the India-China opium trade.
In 1914, the United States Narcotics Act (The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act) was passed, regulating and imposing a tax upon the sale of opium, heroin and cocaine for the first time. The Act took effect March 1, 1915. In the act, the government restricted the selling of heroin to only medical purposes. With this act, recreational use was still easily taking place.
However, there were several more laws that eventually led to heroin becoming illegal altogether in the United States.
For example, in 1922, the Narcotic Import and Export Act restricted the importation of crude opium except for medical use. Then, the U.S. Treasury Department's Narcotics Division (the first federal drug agency) in 1923 banned all legal narcotics sales. With the prohibition of legal venues to purchase heroin, addicts are forced to buy from illegal street dealers. And, finally in 1924, the Heroin Act made manufacture and possession of heroin illegal.
Consider these much quoted lines:
- The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
- Robert Burns, from "To a Mouse" (Poem, November, 1785)
- (The best laid schemes of Mice and Men
oft go awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!)