Heroin: The Deadly Narcotic That Was Once Medicine!

Heroin: The Deadly Narcotic That Was Once Medicine!

Patrick Lynch - January 21, 2017

Heroin wasn’t always perceived to be society’s scourge. Long before The Stranglers sang about Golden Brown, this highly addictive and often deadly narcotic was legal! Not only that, but it was also prescribed as medicine for children! Heroin has a long and fascinating history so let’s check it out.

The Early History of Heroin

Heroin is a derivative of opium; an extremely popular drug in the 19th century which probably fuelled most of the poetry of the era! Morphine was developed from the drug in 1810 and was given its name after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams because it put users in a euphoric dream-like state. It became widely available in America in the 1850s and was extensively used by soldiers in the Civil War.

Morphine addiction gripped America, but a new drug called Heroin was developed in 1874 in Germany and seen as a solution to the morphine problem. It was brought to the United States soon after and marketed as a non-addictive, safe alternative for morphine.

Heroin – ‘The Cough Disappears.’

In the late 1890s, world renowned pharmaceutical company, Bayer, made a fortune by selling heroin as a cough, cold and pain remedy. Reports began to surface in 1899 that patients in the United States were developing a tolerance to the drug and the increasing number of addicts were begging for more. In the same year, Bayer was exporting the drug to 23 countries and producing up to one ton of heroin per annum. It was possible to buy heroin lozenges, pastilles, water-soluble salts, tablets and much more. There were even over-the-counter heroin kits which included vials of the drug along with a hypodermic needle.

While one German researcher was ahead of the curve by claiming heroin was ‘a dangerous poison,’ his was almost a lone voice in the wind. From 1899 to 1905, medical experts wrote over 180 clinical works about the drug and the majority of them were positive albeit cautious. Meanwhile, salesmen were selling the drug as a ‘cure all.’ Apparently, heroin could cure colds, old age, depression, tuberculosis, and cancer.

Heroin: The Deadly Narcotic That Was Once Medicine!

Bayer promoted the use of heroin in ads for children up until 1912. Its children’s campaign appeared in Spanish newspapers. One ad shows a mother spoon-feeding heroin to her kid with the caption ‘The Cough Disappears’ in Spanish. Another ad features two young sufferers of bronchitis reaching for a bottle of heroin across a table. The German company only stopped making heroin in 1913 upon news of a massive increase of heroin-related hospital admissions in large American cities such as New York and Philadelphia.

The first steps towards banning the substance took place in 1914 with the Harrison Narcotics Act. This law stated that recreational use of cocoa leaf and opiate derivatives were illegal in the United States. However, it was still possible to get the drug with a doctor’s prescription. The Heroin Act of 1924 made all usage of heroin illegal in the U.S. Unfortunately; there were approximately 200,000 addicts in the country at that time. In the same year as the Heroin Act, the New York Police deputy commissioner claimed that heroin addicts committed 94% of all crimes in the city!

Addiction Spreads

Far from eliminating the problem, The Heroin Act simply caused the growth of secret drug labs in China. Organized crime gangs in Europe took control of the industry and the level of unrefined heroin importation to Marseille was so great that it was nicknamed The French Connection. The drug was refined in France and shipped to Europe and northwestern American cities.

Increased security during World War II meant the drug suppliers found it tough to import the narcotic into America. The result was a significant drop in the number of addicts. Sadly, the criminal gangs reverted to ‘business as usual’ by the late 1940s and during the Vietnam War; American soldiers had easy access to the drug. In 1971, two congressmen claimed that 15% of combatants in the war were addicted to the dangerous narcotic.

President Nixon created the Special Action Office of Drug Prevention Abuse to deal with the issue. One study found that soldiers who tried to get clean in America had relapse rates of 95% compared to a rate of just 5% for those who ‘dried out’ in Vietnam. Heroin addiction remains one of the significant issues facing U.S. society today, but America is far from being alone in this regard.

Heroin: The Deadly Narcotic That Was Once Medicine!

Heroin around the World

Egypt is another country that suffered from heroin addiction in the past. In the 1920s, an estimated 3.5% of Egypt’s population was addicted to the drug! To put this in context; in 2011 it was estimated that only 1.6% of Americans had even tried heroin. The Egyptian problem began in 1916 when the drug became widely available for non-medical consumption. Heroin was available for rock bottom prices and some companies even paid their employees in it! Egyptian addiction hit critical mass in 1929 before declining due to the closure of major Turkish heroin factories and new international regulations.

Heroin wasn’t as big an issue in the United Kingdom which may be why it never cracked down on the drug as quickly or effectively as the United States. While it was made illegal in 1926, it was available in the 1950s when people would queue outside a pharmacist at night to buy their heroin pills on prescription. By the middle of the 1950s, the British Government was under international pressure to ban the manufacture, import, and export of the drug.

As late as 1955, the respected The Times newspaper wrote an article defending heroin! The editorial claimed that only 47.5 people in Britain were addicted to the narcotic; no one is sure what constitutes a ‘half addict.’ Supplying Heroin was upgraded to a capital offense in the U.S. in 1956, but the UK Government backed down from banning heroin. In fact, Britain is one of the few places in the world where you can still get heroin (called diamorphine) on prescription! It is used to treat addicts. MacFarlan Smith is the only legal producer in the UK.

Countries such as Mexico, Bulgaria, Spain and Costa Rica followed America’s lead and banned heroin altogether. Nonetheless, this deadly drug is still a multi-billion dollar business with millions of addicts worldwide.