The United States is in the midst of a heroin epidemic, with more people dying from overdose by the day.

Heroin has been causing havoc for centuries, both on a global and personal scale. From wars to overdoses, heroin’s history is volatile and deadly.

It all started in 3400 B. C. with the cultivation of opium in lower Mesopotamia. By the 1300s, opium had been introduced to Egypt, Greece, Europe, India, and China. Opium was first used as painkiller and for recreation in Europe and India during the 1500s and 1600s. The dangers of opium led to its regulation in China and India in the 1700s, and by 1799 opium had become an illicit commodity. Opium dependence increased steadily in Europe in the 1800s and began to be imported to the U.S. Morphine, an alkaloid of opium, was discovered in 1803, and E. Merck & Company of Germany begin to commercially manufacture morphine in 1827. By 1839, opium accounted for more deaths than any other substance. Hypodermic needles invented in 1853 make the injection of morphine possible.

The term “heroin” was coined by the Bayer Company in Germany in 1895; heroin is made by diluting morphine with acetyls and has fewer side effects than morphine. By the early 1900s, heroin addiction has increased substantially, and 1906 the U.S. Congress passes the Pure Food and Drug Act requiring labeling on patent medicines. In 1923, the first federal drug agency ( the U.S. Treasury Department’s Narcotics Division) bans all legal sales of narcotics. Illegal heroin continues to be smuggled in from China, and by the 1950s is again readily available (illegally) due to the U.S. military involvement in Asia. In 1971, Nixon launches the War on Drugs, but the heroin market continues to thrive. By the 1990s, pain medications containing oxycodone and hydrocodone become more common, leading to dependency outside of the drug culture. Many users begin to move on to heroin because it is cheaper. In 2008, a research report reveals that over one in 100 adults in the USA is in jail, nearly half of which were imprisoned for non-violent, drug-related “crimes.” In 2009, the FDA announces a plan to further restrict opioid pain medications. More than 8000 heroin-related deaths occurred in 2013, compared to nearly 6000 in 2012. The rates have increased significantly since 2010, when deaths numbered about 3,000. Heroin-related deaths are up among both men and women, in all age groups, and in whites, blacks, and Hispanics. As of 2015, policymakers from both ends of the political spectrum call the War on Drugs a failure and examine new approaches to addiction. States continue to approve medications like naloxone, buprenorphine, and methadone to treat heroin overdoses.

To learn more about the detailed history of opium and heroin throughout history, see the sources listed below.

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A Brief History of Opium. (n.d.). Retrieved October, 2016.

Booth, Martin. Opium: A History. London: Simon & Schuster, Ltd., 1996.

Heroin timeline info. (n.d.). Retrieved October, 2016.

Latimer, Dean, and Jeff Goldberg with an Introduction by William Burroughs. Flowers in the Blood: The Story of Opium. New York: Franklin Watts, 1981