Heroin a Remedy? A Surprising History of a Drug That Hooked America If I say “heroin addict,” what do you picture? Do you see a needle? Maybe a strung out person with track marks up and down their arms from injecting a notoriously illicit drug? However, the strung-out needle user is not the profile of the historical heroin user. In the early 1900’s, the heroin addict might have looked more like a prim and proper Victorian lady, or even an innocent little baby. Heroin has a very long and interesting history. Heroin was first manufactured in 1874 by an English chemist. During this same time, morphine abuse and addiction were a problem in the United States and England. Heroin was used to replace morphine and was believed to be non-addictive. Twenty years later, heroin was being commercially produced by Bayer, the same company that makes aspirin today. The new drug was named after a German word heroisch, which means “heroic, strong.” Bayer trademarked the name Heroin and produced a remedy they claimed could substitute for morphine and act as a cough suppressant. Today, drug companies constantly look for better ways to deliver a better remedy. For example, Tylenol has become a popular substitute for people who are sensitive to aspirin. In the case of trying to solve the morphine addiction problem, a worse problem was brewing. People were unknowingly becoming addicted to a remedy that they believed to be safe and non-addictive. Parents were giving Heroin to their children. Once heroin enters into the blood, it crosses over the blood-brain barrier. The liver then converts the heroin to morphine. Endorphins (feel-good hormones) are activated to release more endorphins, the body’s natural pain medicine. The increased endorphins create feelings of well-being and, for some, a sense of euphoria. Eventually, it was discovered that heroin was highly addictive. Once taken, heroin rapidly metabolizes and is one-and-a-half to two times more potent than morphine itself. In the United States, it was removed from the market and classified as an illegal drug in 1924. Morphine and heroin are from opium, the sap of opium poppy plants. Opium use dates back to ancient civilizations. Use of opium spread from the Egyptians and Persians to Europe, and then India and China. It wasn’t until the 18th century that the United States started using opium for therapeutic treatment for pain. The addictive properties of opium–based drugs were not known to doctors until the late 18th century. From the early 1900’s, illegal trade of heroin came mostly from countries where heroin was still legal, into countries that outlawed the drug. Today, in the United States, heroin is still one of the best-known drugs of abuse. Most of the heroin sold on the streets come from Mexico, Latin America and Asia. Since the 1930’s, heroin has been a major player in at least two drug addiction epidemics in the United States. During the 1930’s and 1940’s, a cultural change came through jazz music. Jazz musicians were known to be high-strung types and an easy target for pushers offering a way to calm the nerves before a performance. By the end of the decade, the image of a jazz musician was one of a reckless, addicted soul…a long cry from the happy-go–lucky entertainer of the past. Headlines in daily newspapers reported the problems that were trashing the lives of famous jazz artists. Headlines like “Hey Ho Billie Holiday Arrested Again on Narcotics Charge” shined the light on the tragedy that jazz players faced. Red Rodney, a trumpeter, said: “Heroin became the thing that made us different from the rest of the world. It was the thing that gave us membership in a unique club.” Many great jazz players’ lives were wrecked by addiction. Today, as in the past, musicians are often plagued with anxiety and turn to drugs to calm their nerves. Doctors have replaced the “pushers” of the 40’s and 50’s, and heroin is taken more often in the legal form of OxyContin, a prescription medicine. The epidemic levels of drug abuse in the entertainment business is not new, however, the roots can be traced back to the time following World War II and the jazz culture. The second big wave of epidemic heroin abuse came during the Vietnam War. Opiates were easily and cheaply available in Vietnam, and heroin use among enlisted American soldiers became a problem that followed the men home. The men were young, many 18-20 years old, and were underage for drinking. The availability and inexpensive price for the heroin was an added incentive. Many servicemen returned home from their tour of duty, addicted to heroin. More than 15% of the men serving in Vietnam were addicted to heroin. The president called into action a new office named, The Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention. The purpose of the office was for prevention of drug abuse during service and to rehabilitate the servicemen when they returned home. Ninety-five percent of the soldiers eliminated their addiction almost immediately after returning home. Only five percent relapsed. These statistics contradicted all past research that showed a 90% relapse for heroin addicts. The pattern was exactly the opposite. When out of the war zone and away from easy access, the soldiers were able to get clean and stay clean. The lessons learned from this time in history are still being studied and used to help in understanding addiction and how it shapes our lives and culture. Can the environment make a big difference? Most certainly.
What about heroin today?
Has this drug changed much through history? I would like to present a more up–to–date look at what is happening now with this ancient drug. Refined heroin is usually a white powder. Heroin is rarely sold on the streets as a pure refined powder. The profit for the drug dealer is in knowing how to “cut” the drug, by diluting the pure heroin. Usually, the substances used to “cut” the heroin are harmless. Sugar or starch are common additives. Drug dealers don’t want to kill their customers, so they are usually careful not to use toxic additives. However, when toxic additives are used, there is a risk of serious harm or even death from the additive. The most common way to use heroin is by shooting it into a vein with a needle. This is the fastest way to deliver the drug and takes only minutes to get to the brain. Needle users are at great risk of blood and skin infections. The next common way to use is to inject the drug into the muscle, but it takes a little longer to get the full effect when injected into the muscle. Snorting or smoking the powder is another way, with the slowest delivery rate. Long–term use can lead to collapsed veins. The health effects of even short-term heroin use can be serious.
- Mental function becomes clouded and slowed.
- Breathing is slowed down and can cause lungs to give out.
- Infections of the skin can become abscessed.
- Infection and damage to the heart and surrounding tissue can occur.
- Liver and lung diseases may develop.
- The risks associated with using needles that are not sterile puts the addict at risk of contracting AIDS.
Like all other illegal drugs, heroin is sold by criminals who import the drug from other criminals. I am not saying this to sound redundant, but to get across the point that, even if a person is not an addict, they are still supporting criminals. Heroin addiction is expensive and supply and demand can become a nightmare for the addict. Frequent re-dosing is required in order to keep from suffering a lot of pain. The addict is at the mercy of people who are heartless and driven by money and know that you don’t want to suffer pain. Heroin addiction stops the body from producing endorphins naturally. Without heroin, the addict will not have enough endorphins to block pain signals to the brain. Everything the addict does can be painful, including breathing. This is only a tiny peek into the history of heroin. What we have to gain from looking into history is a chance to learn and understand how to make a better future. What I have noticed is that history tends to repeat itself. The jazz player of the 40’s isn’t much different from the rock and roll star of the present time. The soldier in a war zone is not much different than the gangster that survives on the streets of a drug-infested hood. We are all the same when it comes to getting through life. What makes the difference is how well we learn from the people who have gone ahead? Getting off of heroin can be painful and difficult. Depending on the history of use, it may be dangerous to try and go it on your own. If you or someone you know has a heroin abuse disorder, get the help you need in a medically supervised setting with treatment for heroin abuse disorder.