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 web, and print news are all overflowing with information about the latest death, overdose, or threat to safety. However, there is a backstory to heroin —how it was first made, how it came to America, what it was initially used for, and how its use has grown— that is rarely mentioned.
Here, we aim to shed some light on the history of heroin so that we all 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. Its street terms include Black Tar, China White, Dope, Eighth, H, Horse, Junk, Mexican Brown, Poppy, Skag, and Smack, among others.
It looks like a white or brown powder or a black sticky substance. However, there are several differences in the three forms besides appearance:
- White heroin generally comes from Southeast Asian in powder form. It is easily dissolvable in water and is quite acidic.
- Off-white or light brown heroin generally comes from Columbia. It is powdered and dissolves easily in water.
- Brown heroin is coarser than white, though it still comes in a powder. It is generally from Southwest Asia and is hard to dissolve in water and is pretty stable when exposed to heat (that is, it is difficult for it to change form or structure when heat is applied).
- Dark brown or black heroin usually comes from Mexico. It is a solid, as opposed to a powder, and is less pure that 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 do not tend to smoke heroin, even though the black variety is easier to get and much easier to smoke than the other types. Some believe the acidity makes it irritating to the mucous membranes while others believe that the Asian tradition of adding a base beforehand to combat the acidity simply hasn’t made it to America yet.
Heroin can be inhaled in a powder form or turned into a solution and inhaled as a mist. The former is the most popular way of using the drug.
How does heroin work and what are its effects?
Once you administer heroin by smoking, snorting or injecting it, it’s converted back into morphine. The morphine then binds to opioid receptors located all over the brain and body: the central nervous system, gastrointestinal system, smooth muscle, skin, cardiovascular system, and immune system. These receptors control pain perception, reward, blood pressure, breathing, and arousal.
Immediately after 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 deterioration.
- Catching an infectious disease via sharing needles (e.g. HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, tetanus, etc.).
- Clogged blood vessels.
- Collapsed veins.
- Difficulty urinating.
- Dry mouth.
- Infection of the heart lining.
- Kidney disease.
- Liver disease.
- Loss of appetite.
- Lowered libido and blood pressure.
- Slowed breathing and pulse.
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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 U.S. A black market opened in Chinatown in New York City and spread outward.
This remained the state of affairs until 1948, when gangsters from Corsica (a French island west of the Italian peninsula) connected with U.S. Mafia drug distributors and began to overtake the market. Turkish opium was refined in Marseille and sold in New York City. This allowed for a rise in American users, and, between 1965 and 1970, there were an estimated 750,000 heroin addicts in the country.
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, Colombian drug lords began exporting a high-grade form of heroin into the U.S., and 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, with more than 27,000 deaths per year.
- 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 most deadly drugs were opioids, which killed 18,893 people.
- Deaths resulting from heroin rose by 469% in the five-year period between 1999 and 2014.
- 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 more, consume more, and raise 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.
These facts are alarming, but perhaps they’ll also be sobering. Stay clear of opioids in general and heroin specifically. If you’re already using, reach out for help.
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