The seductive allure of heroin — the drug that has vanquished so many creative minds — is back. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the rate of heroin-related overdoses has nearly quadrupled, from 0.7 to 2.7 per 100,000 Americans.
1805, the origins of a promising, then dark, matter
A German chemist synthesized morphine and it soon earned the moniker “God’s own medicine.” Sold as a pain reliever, morphine ended up in the hands of recreational users and creative types seeking inspiration.
Morphine, like opium, is derived from poppies, which were first cultivated on the north coast of the Persian Gulf. From its earliest days, people succumbed to opium’s narcotic powers, which eventually paved trade routes across the globe and spurred derivatives like morphine, codeine and heroin.
Among the remedies which it has pleased almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium. – SIR THOMAS SYDENHAM, “THE ENGLISH HIPPOCRATES” (1680)
1898, an addiction is born
The head chemist and his team at the Bayer Company derived heroin from morphine. Not long after, they developed aspirin, in short order creating two of the world’s most famous drugs, which were often advertised together. The company marketed heroin as a cough medicine to ease the big killers of the day, pneumonia and tuberculosis — and as an alternative to highly addictive morphine.
Doctors quickly embraced heroin, calling it a wonder drug. But soon they realized it was, in fact, more addictive than morphine, and its withdrawal symptoms were more severe. By the time Britain and Germany began regulating heroin, its speedy, potent effect had begun claiming addicts.
Early 20th century – a vice spreads in the US
Bellevue Hospital admitted its first heroin addict for treatment and five years later admitted 425. By that time, governments realized heroin addiction was a serious menace, entangling mostly young, working class men.
President Woodrow Wilson signed the first legislation aimed at curbing use in 1914, and in 1923 the US Treasury Department’s Narcotics Division banned heroin sales.
By the late 1940s addiction had reached epidemic proportions. Heroin seeped into the arts, addicting jazz musicians such as Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Chet Baker, and beatnik writers, notably William S. Burroughs author of Junky.
If you have never been addicted, you can have no clear idea what it means to need junk with the addict’s special need. You don’t decide to be an addict. One morning you wake up sick and you’re an addict. – WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS, PROLOGUE TO ‘JUNKY’
The 1970s and forward
A second wave of addiction swept America during the Vietnam war as heroin flowed in from southeast Asian allies. The drug infiltrated the music world, killing huge stars of the day — and casting their legacies in a dark, myth-making shadow. Heroin was linked to the deaths of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Amy Winehouse who all died at the age of 27.
By the end of the Vietnam war, an estimated 750,000 Americans, including as much as 25% of veterans, were addicted to heroin, prompting President Richard Nixon to dub drug addiction “Public Enemy No. 1.” As prices rose and purity dropped after the war, addiction rates slowed.
Heroin use on the rise
The US Food and Drug Administration approved the opioid painkiller OxyContin, which was first marketed by Purdue Pharma the following year.
It quickly became a scourge in mostly white, rural America as addicts discovered that crushing then injecting, snorting or swallowing a powdered form of the drug subverted its time-release formula, giving them the drug’s full potency all at once.
From 1990 to 2008, drug overdose rates tripled in the US, a spike largely blamed on OxyContin and other painkillers. In 2010, the FDA approved a form of the drug that prevents it from being crushed, and abuse rates dropped.
In 2015, Heroin overdoses surge
The government released a report showing that the rate of heroin overdose deaths in the country have nearly quadrupled from 2010 to 2013, claiming an average of 23 people a day, or more than 8,000 a year.
While the report doesn’t make the connection, a recent study found that abuse of painkillers had leveled off during the same period, a phenomenon that is likely linked to new abuse-deterrent formulations of OxyContin.
The new report reinforces the idea that painkillers are a gateway to heroin and further suggests that science needs to find ways not just to tackle addiction, but the pain that leads to it.
Opiates are outranked only by alcohol as humanity’s oldest, most widespread, and most persistent drug problem. – HARVARD MENTAL HEALTH LETTER, 2004