The history of heroin as we know it today dates back to 1895, when a German chemist attempted to change morphine chemically in order to reduce its side effects and addictive qualities.
The resulting drug he produced on behalf of his employer Bayer was called “heroin,” and advertised as a painkiller 10 times as potent as morphine, yet with no addictive qualities whatsoever.
Word quickly spread around the world, and the Saint James Society in the United States launched a campaign to supply free samples of this new wonder drug to morphine addicts.
Even the Sears Roebuck company joined the cause, by offering heroin and needles in its well-known catalogue.
By 1899, Bayer was producing about a ton of heroin a year, and exporting the drug to 23 countries.
The country where it really took off was the United States, where there was already a large population of morphine addicts, a craze for patent medicines, and a relatively lax regulatory framework. Manufacturers of cough syrup were soon lacing their products with Bayer heroin.
There were heroin pastilles, heroin cough lozenges, heroin tablets, water-soluble heroin salts and a heroin elixir in a glycerine solution.
Bayer never advertised heroin to the public but the publicity material it sent to physicians was unambiguous.
One flyer described the product thus: “Heroin: the Sedative for Coughs . . . order a supply from your jobber.”
“It possesses many advantages over morphine,” wrote the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in 1900. “It’s not hypnotic, and there’s no danger of acquiring a habit.”
Predictably, the optimism surrounding heroin soon turned into concern, and by 1902 physician groups lobbied to have it withdrawn. Congress followed suit by banning it in 1905; however, by that time, heroin addiction had risen to alarming levels.
While outlawing heroin temporarily put a dent in its use, it wasn’t long before criminal gangs filled the void and dramatically escalated heroin manufacturing, distribution and export.
By 1925, an estimated 1.7% of the US population was addicted to heroin, and was first referred to as an epidemic around 1950. Heroin abuse was also one of the core issues that led to the creation of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973.
Today, heroin, morphine and opium addiction has skyrocketed, largely as a result of growing prescription drug abuse (e.g. Percocet, Vicodin, OxyContin, Opana, and many others).
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), nearly 11% of Americans between 18 and 25 abused opiates or prescription painkillers in 2012.