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History of Drugs: Heroin

In 1898 a German chemical company launched a medicine they called heroin. A hundred years later and we now we have a feared and dangerous street drug. In 1863, Friedrich Bayer (1825-76) started up a factory to use new chemical procedures for producing colorful dyes from coal-tar. And in 1888, a new substance made Bayer chemists became the company’s first commercial medicine.

Synthetic chemicals were something totally new in the 1800’s and early 19th century. In the early 19th century medicines had always been using raw materials. For example, medicines like opium which was made from the juice of poppy seed pods.

The first man to apply a chemical process to plant drugs was Friedrich Serturner who purified the main active ingredient of opium which he later gave the name ‘morphium’ and which we now know as morphine. Being able to get morphine and other pure drugs from plants brought success for many entrepreneurs such as Georg Merck, who turned his pharmacy into a major supplier of the new chemical medicines. Morphine was widely and commonly used for pain relief in the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War. Back then morphine was used in combination with a hypodermic syringe which had been invented in 1853.

The Making of Heroin

Now that plant derived drugs were now available in modified and purified forms they could be changed into new molecules that could be more effective and even safer for people to use. Heinrich Dreser, who now was the head of the Bayer Company in Eberfeld adopted this strategy to create two of the most famous drugs we know today. The first being heroin, which Dreser made by adding two acetyl groups to the morphine molecule; and the second being salicylic acid derivative which Bayer called ‘Aspirin’.

Heroin On the Market

Heroin took its name from the adjective heroic. Heroin was presented as a cough, chest and lung medicine to the Congress of German Naturalists and Physicians in 1898. It was meant to help with the pain relief of diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis which were the leading causes of death back then. Back then antibiotics had yet to be discovered and created so the doctors could only prescribe narcotic painkillers to help with the suffering of patients who could not sleep due to breathing and coughing. Heroin was very effective in helping these symptoms.

Today we know heroin to be a potent, fast acting painkiller that surpasses morphine in its effectiveness because it passes from the blood to the brain much easier. Heroin was praised as a miracle drug after its debut and was advertised in German, English, Italian, Russian and other languages all over the world.

Heroin began being prescribed instead of morphine or codeine. The addictive potential of morphine was quite well known and slowly doctors and pharmacists began to figure out that while heroin was an improvement from morphine it wasn’t an improvement in respect to addiction.  Those using heroin for medicine slowly found themselves needing more and more of it to get the same pain relieving effects.

The Downfall of Heroin

By 1903, it was finally realized that heroin had become a serious problem. Hundreds of people had been treated for heroin addiction in what was known as “demorphisation”. The United States was the first country where heroin addiction became a serious problem. By the late 19th century it was believed that over a quarter of a million Americans were addicted to opium, morphine or cocaine. In 1910, New York’s Bellevue Hospital made its first ever admission for heroin addiction. In 1915, it admitted 425 heroin addicts.

Heroin eventually became a black market substance and one that could only be obtained with a prescription. During the early 1920s a number of New York addicts supported themselves by collecting scrap metal from industrial dumps, so earning the label ‘junkies’. Also at this time was the discovery by addicts of the enhanced euphoric effects when heroin was injected with the hypodermic syringe.

Heroin addiction was blamed for a number of the 260 murders that occurred in 1922 in New York. These concerns led the US Congress to ban all domestic manufacture of heroin in 1924 which left only morphine and codeine available but still only by prescription.

After heroin became outlawed, it’s use generally declined except for two major spikes in use, or heroin epidemics.

The first one began after World War II and  the second began in the late 1960s.   During the first epidemic, the highest incidence of use occurred in the  late 1940s and early 1950s; during the second, the highest incidence occurred  between 1971 and 1977.  Both epidemics  appear to have subsided due to lack of purity in the heroin that was available,  and the increasing cost of heroin.

At the time of the second epidemic, heroin use was prevalent  among enlisted men serving in Vietnam  during the Vietnam War.  From 1969 to  1971, opiates were cheaply available in that country.

Heroin Today

The prescription painkiller epidemic has ushered in another spike in heroin use. The increase in the availability of opiate based prescription narcotics has led more and more people to get hooked.

In recent years, there has been a widespread crackdown on doctors who prescribe these medications and pharmacies that dispense them. Prescription pills are not as easy to get as they once were, and a prescription pill addiction can be very expensive, with pills costing up to a dollar per milligram. By contrast, heroin in New Jersey can go for as low as $50 dollars a bundle (approximately one gram). When someone becomes addicted, it can become difficult for them to afford the pills. Heroin is a much cheaper alternative.

If your loved one is in need of heroin addiction treatment please give us a call at 800-951-6135.





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