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  • Heroin is a powerful and dangerous illicit opioid drug and one of the major commodities of the international drug trade. But when was it discovered and how did it grow to become the major threat to global health that it is today?

    The Origins Of Heroin

    Opium is a natural compound collected from the opium poppy.

    It has been cultivated for thousands of years and used by many cultures and countries, including the Sumerians, ancient Egyptians, England, China, and the United States.

    In the early 1800s the German pharmacist Friedrich Sertürner isolated the opiate drug morphine from opium, giving the medical community access to a predictable and powerful narcotic that is still widely used to this day.

    In 1874, Charles Romney Alder Wright, an English chemist, was experimenting with morphine and various acids. This process led to the creation of a new morphine derivative known alternatively as diacetylmorphine, diamorphine, and heroin.

    The Difference Between Morphine & Diamorphine

    Heroin is made from morphine and therefore the two compounds have a great deal in common.

    Both drugs interact with opioid receptors in the brain to block pain and induce relaxation and euphoria. Both were widely used in previous centuries to treat coughing, diarrhea, pain, and a wide range of mental health disorders. 

    Both have a variety of side effects and are major candidates for substance use disorders.

    However, medical-grade heroin is approximately twice as potent as morphine. This means that heroin must be dosed in much smaller amounts to avoid overdose, and that heroin possesses an even higher potential for abuse and addiction.

    The Bayer Company & Heroin In America

    Diamorphine reached the United States in the later years of the 1800s. In 1898, the Bayer company began marketing the drug as heroin, a brand name that referenced the drug’s euphoric effects and how it made those who took it feel unstoppable.

    Diamorphine was marketed as a non-addictive alternative to morphine and was even prescribed to treat morphine addiction. It was also used to treat coughing, colds, diarrhea, and childbirth pain.

    In the early 1900s, American use of heroin continued to grow and more and more cases of problematic heroin abuse (including intravenous drug use) became known. 

    Eventually, the truth was inescapable: heroin was extremely addictive and long-term misuse was dangerous and harmful.

    In 1924, the United States outlawed heroin. It remains a Schedule I controlled substance with no established medical use to this day.

    Heroin & The American Opioid Crisis

    In 1996 another opioid drug, oxycodone, was formulated in a new delayed-release tablet branded OxyContin. Purdue Pharma, the company behind the new product, marketed it as a safe and effective option for chronic pain management. 

    By the year 2000, American prescriptions for OxyContin had skyrocketed.

    Unfortunately, so did cases of prescription opioid drug addiction, abuse, and overdose rates. In the years that followed, American drug overdose deaths involving prescription opioids rose from 3,442 in 1999 to 17,029 in 2017, before falling to 14,139 in 2019.

    Heroin Deaths

    During the same period, overdose deaths involving heroin rose from 1,960 in 1999 to 15,469 in 2016 before trending downwards to 14,019 deaths in 2019, with a considerable surge in heroin addiction and heroin overdose cases beginning in 2010 and peaking in 2015.

    While government estimates indicate that only between 4% to 6% of those who take prescription opioid painkillers for chronic pain switch over to heroin, about 80% of Americans who currently use heroin first misused prescription opioids.

    Heroin Production & The Modern Illegal Drug Trade

    The largest global producer of heroin in the modern day is Afghanistan, producing around 90% of the world’s supply of heroin, according to United Nations figures. 

    Opium, which is still used as a precursor for heroin, is also produced in Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Pakistan, Mexico, and Colombia.

    About half of the heroin consumed in America originates in Mexico (often in the form of black tar heroin), and the other half originates in Columbia (brown heroin, also sourced from southwest Asia), according to DEA statistics. 

    White powder heroin is scarcer and typically imported from southeast Asia.

    While heroin is deadly on its own, it is increasingly laced with powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil. This trend has resulted in a new wave of opioid-related deaths in recent years.

    Heroin Addiction Treatment

    To learn about our substance use treatment options for heroin addiction, including medication-assisted treatment that uses naltrexone, methadone, or buprenorphine, please contact us today.

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2023 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.

    Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) - Drug Fact Sheet: Heroin
    Encyclopedia Britannica - Heroin
    National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) - Opioid Overdose Crisis
    National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) - Overdose Death Rates
    United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) - 2020 World Drug Report

    Medically Reviewed by
    Davis Sugar, M.D.
    on July 3, 2022
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