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A Brief History of Heroin

Heroin's Soundtrackheroi, The Lure Of Heroin, Myths And Facts

For about five thousand years, human beings have used opium for its properties as a painkiller. One of the earliest descriptions comes from the Greek physician Hippocrates (460 BCE), who wrote about the effects of “poppy juice.” Opium was commonly used in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. During the early history of the United States, preparations containing opium were often prescribed as medications for virtually any ailment. Laudanum, a mixture containing alcohol, opium, and spices, gained wide popularity. Benjamin Franklin took medicines containing opium for his painful gout, a condition where uric acid crystals accumulate in joints, usually in the big toes.

Until the nineteenth century, opium abuse was not considered a social problem.

Opium taken orally does not have an extremely potent effect, which lessened the likelihood of a severe addiction or deadly consequence. Gradually, though, the practice of smoking opium caught on. In 1804, a German pharmacist isolated morphine, the active ingredient in opium. In 1853, the hypodermic syringe was invented. Smoking and injection both delivered a stronger effect, and addiction rates began to climb. After the U.S. Civil War ended in 1865, morphine dependency became known as the“soldier's disease.” Opium dens, where users would gather to smoke opium together, opened across the country.

In 1898, the German pharmaceutical company Bayer developed a new opium derivative to treat coughing caused by tuberculosis. It named its new medicine “heroin.” For over a decade, heroin use was legal and considered safe.

As the abuse potential of heroin became obvious, laws were passed that gradually led to it being restricted and finally banned. Making heroin illegal did not end demand for the drug, however. Criminal organizations took over the production, trade, and distribution of heroin. Illegal laboratories were set up in Asia for heroin production. For many years, the Italian Mafia was one of the major crime syndicates involved in heroin sales. World War II, however, interrupted the global heroin trade. Supplies were low, and traffickers began the practice of “cutting” pure heroin with cheaper substances, reducing its purity.

Although parts of Asia are still major heroin producers today, most of the heroin distributed in the United States comes from Colombia and Mexico. The purity of the heroin has gradually risen even as the price of the drug has fallen.

Trends in heroin use have shifted throughout the decades. During the 1950s, heroin use was associated with the beat movement of writers and musicians who felt alienated from mainstream American culture. This included authors William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac and the jazz artist Miles Davis.

A number of high-profile celebrities have struggled with heroin addiction, sometimes with tragic results.

Some drug users combine heroin with other illegal drugs, despite the greater risks of mixing two drugs. A speedball is a mixture of heroin and cocaine. As the drug ecstasy became popular in the 1990s, followed by an increase in methamphetamineuse, it became common for some users to combine these drugs with heroin.

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