The History of Heroin

The use of plant materials to relieve suffering, treat illness or in religious ceremonies has a long history. Occasionally, the Industry News section will look more closely at the history of a substance to help create context around pharmaceuticals that are a standard drug of interest for our clients.

Although it was first synthesized in 1874, the story of heroin truly begins in 1898, when the drug manufacturer Bayer introduced its new product to the marketplace. Named after the “heroic” feeling users experienced when they took the drug, heroin was a marketplace smash. At the time, tuberculosis and pneumonia were leading causes of death, and 30 percent of those deaths were children younger than five years old. By this time, morphine and laudanum (opium mixed with alcohol) were recognized as addictive, and parents jumped at this new product that appeared to improve breathing and lessen discomfort. Heroin was quickly touted as the godsend for any respiratory problems, including asthma and bronchitis, as well as a remedy for teething pain and even morphine addiction. It was also claimed that it was not habit-forming. It acted faster, required less, and was easier to use than morphine.

A year later, Bayer was producing about a ton of heroin and shipping it to 23 counties, much of that to the U.S., with its craze for patent medicines and its lax regulatory system. But concerns about the new miracle drug surfaced fairly quickly as researchers and doctors began to see “tolerance” developing in its users. However, most medical reports of the day were cautiously positive. In 1906, the American Medical Association approved heroin for medical use, though with strong reservations about a “habit” that was “readily formed.”

By 1913, several East Coast hospitals were reporting record numbers of admissions of heroin-related cases, prompting Bayer to stop producing the drug. A year later, Congress passed the Harrison Act, outlawing the use of heroin without a prescription. It took until 1924 before heroin was outlawed in the U.S. entirely. It was about this time that the term “junkies” was created as a name for the heroin addicts in New York City who supported their habit by collecting and selling scrap metal. That same year, the chemist from Bayer responsible for Bayer’s development and production of heroin died of a stroke, likely related to his heroin addiction. Dr. Heinrich Dreser never believed heroin to be addictive and is rumored to have taken heroin every day. Ironically, his life and health might have been vastly improved if Dreser had instead taken a daily dose of his other big contribution to medicine, aspirin.

To learn more about the current state of heroin, click here.