Where did heroin come from? Here's a look at heroin's history and the facts you didn't know.

Heroin facts & history: from opium fields to an opioid epidemic

These days, we are exposed to heroin in the context of the opioid epidemic. Television, the internet and print media are all overflowing with information about the latest death, overdose or threat to safety. However, there is an often-overlooked history of heroin that encompasses how it was first made, how it came to America, what it was initially used for and how its use has grown.

By understanding heroin’s origin, we can better fight its addictive and deadly effects in the future.

What is heroin and how is it made?

Heroin is an illegal opioid, a type of drug derived from the opium poppy plant. Heroin is a Schedule 1 substance, meaning that it is highly likely to be abused and serves no medical purpose according to the FDA. Its street names include Black Tar, China White, Dope, Eighth, H, Horse, Junk, Mexican Brown, Poppy, Skag and Smack.

Heroin can look like white or brown powder or a black sticky substance. However, there are several differences between the three forms, besides appearance:

  • White heroin generally comes in powder form from Southeast Asian. It is easily dissolvable in water.
  • Off-white or light-brown heroin generally comes from Columbia. It is powdered and dissolves easily in water.
  • Brown heroin is coarser than white heroin, though it still comes as a powder. It is generally from Southwest Asia and is hard to dissolve in water, but is pretty stable when exposed to heat.
  • Dark brown or black heroin usually comes from Mexico. It is solid and less pure than the lighter forms of heroin. It can be made into a solution by adding heat and can also be converted into a vapor.

People in the United States tend to not smoke heroin, even though black heroin is easier to get and much easier to smoke than the other types.

Heroin can be inhaled in a powder form or turned into a solution and inhaled as a mist.

How does heroin work and what are its effects?

Once you administer heroin by smoking, snorting or injecting, it then binds to opioid receptors located within the cell membranes of the brain, the central nervous system, gastrointestinal system, muscle, skin, cardiovascular system, and immune system. These receptors control pain perception, reward, blood pressure, breathing, and arousal.

Using heroin induces a “rush” or “high” of intense pleasure that lasts about 30 minutes. Afterward, users experience warm, flushed skin and feelings of heaviness, accompanied by alternating wakefulness and sleepiness. This lasts 3-4 hours.

Negative effects include:

  • Brain cell damage
  • Catching an infectious disease via sharing needles
  • Clogged blood vessels
  • Collapsed veins
  • Confusion
  • Constipation
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Dry mouth
  • Infection of the heart lining
  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lowered libido and blood pressure
  • Nausea
  • Pneumonia
  • Slowed breathing and pulse
  • Vomiting

Recommended for you: Can you get addicted to heroin the first time?

Where did heroin come from?

Although heroin itself wasn’t invented until 1874, the history of its predecessors — opium and morphine — reaches back about 5400 years. In that time, opium was grown by the Mesopotamians and Sumerians. From there, it spread to the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians. Then the Greeks introduced it to Persia and India, who grew it in large amounts.

In the 1700s, opium was used as a pain reliever for cancer, menstruation, and childbirth. It also was used to relieve spasms from tetanus infections. At the same time, the British began trading opium for Chinese tea. Millions of Chinese people became addicted in the 1800s and physicians began to realize the danger of the drug. In spite of this, The First and Second Opium Wars were fought in China, banning opium imports in 1839 and legalizing them again in 1856.

In 1805, morphine was synthesized from opium to help cure opium addiction. At the time, morphine’s own addictive properties weren’t known. Since morphine causes about ten times the pleasurable effect as opium, it was a well-received product until abuse began and continued to increase.


When and why was heroin invented?

Heroin was synthesized from morphine in 1874 by Charles Romney Alder Wright, but not much was done with the new substance until 1898 when Felix Hoffmann independently re-synthesized heroin for Bayer. It was used in cough medicine, as pain relief for labor pains and to put surgery patients in states of stupor or unconsciousness.

It was also used for much the same reason morphine was created from opium: to curb addiction. Since morphine had such addictive properties, Bayer and others hoped that heroin would be different. However, it too was widely abused and was finally banned under the Heroin Act of 1924.

The history of illegal abuse

In the 1930s, after heroin was deemed illegal, it began to be smuggled from China into the United States. A black market opened in Chinatown in New York City and spread outward.

In 1948, when gangsters from Corsica (a French island west of the Italian peninsula) connected with the mafia in the United States, drug distributors and began to overtake the market. Turkish opium was refined in Marseille and sold in New York City. This connection allowed for a rise in American users and between 1965 and 1970, there were an estimated 750,000 heroin users in the United States.

On June 1, 1973, President Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to consolidate all forms of drug-centered law enforcement under one title to best fight the influx of drugs, including heroin, into America.

Meanwhile, Saigon, a major opium supplier, fell and the heroin epidemic subsided until Mexico’s Sierra Madre took over. The Mexican and American governments sprayed poppy fields with Agent Orange, curbing that source of heroin; however, a source of heroin was found in the “Golden Crescent” of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in 1978, opening the floodgates again.

In the early 1990s, the largest shipment of heroin was seized coming into New York from Bangkok and Colombian drug lords began exporting a high-grade form of heroin into the United States while the Thai army and DEA worked together to destroy opium poppies in the Golden Crescent. But by 1995, Middle-Eastern heroin was the largest source of the drugs coming into America.

By the new millennium, China, Nigeria, Colombia, Mexico, and the Golden Crescent were heavily marketing heroin in the United States.

What is the state of heroin use today?

Currently, the United States is in the midst of an opioid epidemic:

  • Death rates are similar to those of the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s
  • In 1999, there were twice as many deaths by motor vehicle accidents than by drug overdose. In 2014, there were 40% more deaths from overdose than from car accidents. The deadliest drugs were opioids, which killed 18,893 people.
  • Heroin seizures have increased from 3,733 kg in 2011 to 6,722 kg in 2015, an 80% increase
  • In 1981, the purity level of heroin in America was about 10%, and the price per gram was $3,260. By 1999, purity had increased to 40% and the price had dropped to $622 per gram (adjusting for inflation) making it easier to buy and consume more and raising the likelihood of overdose. Since 1999, purity levels have remained high and prices have remained low.
  • As of 2013, there were more admissions to publicly funded treatment facilities for heroin addiction than any other drug
  • On an average day in the United States, 580 people use heroin for the first time

If you or a loved one are ready to treat an addiction to heroin, The Recovery Village has treatment facilities across the country that can specifically address addictions and the co-occurring disorders that may accompany them. Reach out to a representative today to discuss a treatment plan that will work best for you.

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Heroin Facts & History: From Opium Fields To An Opioid Epidemic
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