The history of heroin and its predecessors

Heroin has been among the most feared, deadly, and misunderstood drugs for decades. Movies like Trainspotting, links to the HIV epidemic and a significant amount of media sensationalism have all contributed to its frightening reputation. While some of this is overblown, there is no doubt that heroin is an incredibly dangerous drug and heroin addiction can be a frightening and potentially life-threatening condition. But where does heroin come from? And how is it that a drug so clearly dangerous was ever allowed to spread in the first place?

Heroin on a spoon

Heroin’s ancestor: The history of opium

Before we can even dive into the story of heroin, we first need to go back and look at what came before it. Thousands of years before heroin was ever synthesised, opium was already being used by people worldwide for medicinal and recreational purposes. Opium is a natural substance derived from the latex or sap of the opium poppy plant, scientifically known as Papaver somniferum. Once extracted and processed, this sap contains a mixture of compounds with potent pain-relieving and psychoactive effects.

Opium facts

Many ancient cultures documented opium’s medicinal and recreational uses and even voiced their concerns about its addictive potential. Some notable examples include:

The Sumerians (c. 4000 BCE)

The Sumerians, living in what’s now Southern Iraq, referred to the poppy plant as Hul Gil or the “joy plant.” Their clay tablets, some of the earliest forms of writing, mention the cultivation and use of opium for spiritual and recreational use.

The Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550 BCE)

This ancient Egyptian medical text, one of the oldest and most significant of its kind, contains over 700 remedies for various ailments. It mentions opium in some recipes, reflecting its medicinal use in ancient times, particularly for pain relief and anaesthetic.

Hippocrates (c. 460-377 BCE)

Often referred to as the father of medicine, the Greek physician Hippocrates acknowledged the usefulness of opium for treating diseases and ailments, but like many ancient physicians, he also recognised its potential risks.

Drug wars: China vs. Britain

While we often perceive drug addiction epidemics as modern issues, the 19th century saw a major drug crisis deeply tied to socio-political agendas and colonialism: the Opium Epidemic in China.

Trade imbalances between China and Britain in the 18th century set the stage for this opium crisis. The British, seeking a commodity they could trade for Chinese tea, porcelain and silks, found their answer in opium. Produced from poppies grown in British-controlled India, opium was smuggled into China, where demand for this highly addictive drug rapidly grew.

By the early 19th century, a staggering number of Chinese citizens had succumbed to opium addiction. It was consumed in opium dens throughout the country, from major port cities to rural villages. China’s social and economic fabric was hugely disrupted, with widespread addiction leading to social unrest, economic drain and a weakening of the Qing Dynasty’s authority.

Recognising the detrimental impacts of opium on its people, the Chinese government attempted to suppress the opium trade. These efforts led to conflicts with the British, culminating in the First Opium War (1839-1842) and later the Second Opium War (1856-1860). The treaties concluding these wars, notably the Treaty of Nanking, heavily favoured the British and other Western powers. They coerced China into ceding territories such as Hong Kong and legalised the opium trade, exacerbating the addiction crisis, from which the British profited immensely.

To learn more about the ‘Opium Wars’, watch this video.

Opium poppy

Morphine: The “miracle drug”

In the 19th century, as opium’s addictive nature became clear, a scientific quest for a non-addictive alternative ensued. This quest led to the isolation of morphine, opium’s primary alkaloid, which was initially hailed as a “miracle drug” for its effective pain relief without the addictive qualities of opium.

Morphine was used during surgeries, administered to wounded soldiers, and even sold in over-the-counter medicines. It wasn’t long, however, before reports of dependence and misuse started surfacing, pointing to the dawn of the first opioid epidemic. By 1900, an estimated 200,000 Americans were addicted to morphine, a significant proportion of whom were Civil War veterans who had been treated with the drug for wartime injuries.

Heroin: A misguided solution

By the late 19th century, history repeated itself, and the scientific world began to search for a safer alternative to morphine, just as it had previously done with opium. A “solution” was thought to have been found when a new opiate, heroin, was first synthesised by the English chemist C.R. Alder Wright in 1874. However, its true debut in the medical world came in 1897 when Felix Hoffmann, working at the German pharmaceutical giant Bayer, re-synthesised it. One Bayer chemist said he felt so heroic after trying the substance the company called “heroin”.

Initially, Bayer aggressively marketed heroin as a non-addictive morphine substitute and a “wonder drug.” Advertisements from the era depict it as a remedy for various ailments. Notably, between 1899 and 1900, Bayer produced about a ton of heroin and exported the drug to 23 countries.

Metabolisation into morphine

It seems slightly unbelievable, but what Bayer and many others overlooked about heroin at the time was how it worked. Once ingested, heroin is metabolised into morphine inside the body
through deacetylation. This process involves the removal of the acetyl groups from heroin’s chemical structure, resulting in the conversion of diacetylmorphine (heroin) into morphine. This means that heroin patients and users were taking a faster-acting version of the drug they were trying to avoid.

By the 1920s, countless people worldwide were addicted to heroin, and its reputation shifted from a medical marvel to a public health menace. This alarming rise eventually led to its ban for medical use in many countries, including the UK, where, after almost forty years of prescription use, heroin became a Class-A controlled substance under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.

Despite this, in US and UK-controlled Afghanistan during the early 2000s and 2010s, opium production increased thirty times the levels under the previous Taliban regime. Afghanistan is the world’s biggest heroin producer, and from this source and others around the world, the drug continues to cause devastation to individuals and society.

Final thoughts

As we step into the present day, the legacy of heroin’s complex history persists in casting a shadow on modern society. The journey from opium’s ancient roots to the mass-produced heroin of today is a tale of medical discovery, colonial greed and short-sighted medical and government policy decisions. While the historical trajectory of heroin has been marked by misuse, addiction and tragedy, contemporary efforts are being made to alleviate the impact of this formidable drug. UKAT provides comprehensive heroin addiction treatment to anyone ready to break free from its grips. Get in contact with us today if you or someone you know is in need of help.