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

It is evident from the timeline below that heroin has been around for centuries, and the explosion in use of prescription painkillers has led not only the U.S., but also a global epidemic in the use of heroin.

  • 3400 B.C. – The opium poppy is cultivated in lower Mesopotamia. The Sumerians pass along the plant to the Assyrians, who pass it along to the Babylonians, who then pass it along to the Egyptians.
  • 1300 B.C. – Egyptians cultivate poppy fields. The trade route of opium flourishes across the Mediterranean Sea into Greece, Carthage, and Europe.
  • 1100 B.C. – The people from the island of Cyprus craft surgical-quality culling knives to harvest opium. They cultivate, trade, and smoke it before the fall of Troy.
  • 460 B.C. – Hippocrates (the father of modern medicine) dismisses the magical attributes of opium but acknowledges its medicinal uses.
  • 330 B.C. – Alexander the Great introduces opium to Persia and India.
  • 400 – Opium grown in the Egyptian fields at Thebes is introduced to China.
  • 1300’s – Opium had disappeared from historical record during the Holy Inquisition. Anything from the East was seen as linked to the devil.
  • 1527 – Opium is reintroduced into European literature during the Reformation. Little black pills were made of opium thebaicum, citrus juice, and quintessence of gold and prescribed as painkillers.
  • 1600’s – People of Persia and India begin consuming opium mixtures for recreational use.
  • 1606 – Ships chartered by Queen Elizabeth were instructed to purchase the finest Indian opium and transport it back to London.
  • 1680 – Thomas Sydenham introduces Sydenham’s Laudanum, a compound of opium, sherry wine and herbs. These pills become a popular remedy for numerous ailments.
  • 1700 – The Dutch export shipments of Indian opium to China and Southeast Asia and introduce the practice of smoking it in a pipe.
  • 1750 – Yung Cheng, the emperor of China, prohibits the smoking of opium and the sale of it, except for use as medicine.
  • 1729 – The British East India Company dominates the opium trade.
  • 1767 – Opium from Bengal continues to enter China, regardless of the emperor’s edict prohibiting the smoking of it. The British East India Company import of opium increases from 200 chests annually to 2000 chests per year.
  • 1773 – Warren Hastings, the first governor general of India recognizes that opium is harmful. He encourages the control of opium by the company hoping that monopolizing and limiting the supply will discourage its consumption.
  • 1780 – British traders establish an opium depot at Macao. At this time, another imperial edict prohibited consumption and sale of opium.
  • 1793 – the British East India Company establishes a total monopoly on the opium trade. All poppy growers in India were forbidden to sell to other companies.
  • 1796 – The emperor of China forbids importation of opium, but it continues illegally.
  • 1799 – The 1796 edict increases traffic through Macao and other areas beyond government control. The British declare only their legitimate cargo, leaving opium on board to be smuggled ashore. Opium has become an illicit commodity.
  • 1800’s – Medicines containing opium were readily available and cheaper than beer or wine. Opium dependence in the first half of the century has a steady incline in Europe.
  • 1800 – The British Levant company purchases half of all of the opium coming out of Turkey for importation to the U.S.
  • 1803 – Friedrich Sertuener of Germany discovers the active ingredient in opium by dissolving it with ammonia. The result: alkaloids –Principium somniferum, or morphine. This set off the research into plant alkaloids. Within the next fifty years, alkaloids from plants such as caffeine, cocaine, quinine, and atrophine were being used.
  • 1816 – John Jacob Astor of New York City joins the opium smuggling trade. His American Fur Company purchases ten tons of Turkish opium, then ships it to Canton.
  • 1827 – E. Merck & Company of Germany begins commercial manufacturing of morphine.
  • 1830 – British dependence on opium reaches an all time high, with 22,000 pounds of opium imported from Turkey and India.
  • 1832 – Codeine is extracted from opium.
  • 1839 – Opium accounts for more deaths than any other substance.
  • 1841 – The Chinese are defeated by the British in the First Opium War.
  • 1843 – Dr. Wood of Endinburgh discovers a new technique of administering morphine by injection with a syringe. He finds the effects immediate and more potent.
  • 1853 – The invention of hypodermic needles.
  • 1856 – The Second Opium War between the French and British against China.
  • 1874 – Heroin is synthesized by C.R. Wright, by boiling morphine over a stove. In San Francisco, smoking opium is banned.
  • 1890 – The U.S. Congress imposes a tax on opium and morphine.
  • 1895 – Heinrich Dreser, working for the Bayer Company in Germany, discovers that diluting morphine with acetyls produces a drug without the common side effects of morphine. Bayer begins producing diacetylmorphine and coins the name “heroin.”
  • 1898 – The Bayer Company introduces heroin as a substitute for morphine.
  • 1900’s – The Saint James Society in the U.S. begins a campaign to supply free samples of heroin through the mail to morphine addicts who are trying to quit morphine. The British and French remain in control of opium production in Southeast Asia. This becomes known as the “Golden Triangle” and becomes a major player in the opium trade during the 1940’s.
  • 1903 – Heroin addiction rises to alarming rates.
  • 1906 – China and England enact a treaty restricting restricting the Sino-Indian opium trade.
    U.S. congress passes the Pure Food and Drug Act requiring labeling on patent medicines by pharmaceutical companies. Several physicians experiment with treatment for heroin addiction. One cure consisted of a seven-day regimen which included a five day purge of heroin from the addict’s system with doses of belladonna delirium.
  • 1909 – The U.S. passes a prohibition outlawing the importation of opium.
  • Feb. 1, 1909 – The International Opium Commission convenes in Shanghai to discuss the immoral and evil effect of opium.
  • 1910 – The Chinese are finally successful in dismantling the India-China trade that has been led by the British for 150 years.
    Dec. 17, 1914 – The Harrison Narcotics Act aims to curb addiction. It requires pharmacists and doctors who prescribe narcotics to pay a tax.
  • 1922 – Narcotic Import and Export Act restricts the importation of crude opium.
  • 1923 – The first federal drug agency ( the U.S. Treasury Department’s Narcotic’s Division) bans all legal sales of narcotics. Addicts then buy from illegal street dealers.
  • 1924 – Heroin Act made manufacture and possession of heroin illegal.
  • 1925 – The black market thrives in New York’s Chinatown.
  • 1930’s- Most of the illegal heroin in the U.S. is smuggled in from China. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics is created.
  • 1940’s – During WWII, opium trade routes are blocked.
  • 1948-1972 – Corsican gangsters dominate the U.S. heroin market. After refining raw Turkish opium, heroin is made easily available for purchase by addicts in New York City.
  • 1950’s – U.S. efforts to contain the spread of Communism in Asia involves forging alliances with tribes and warlords inhabiting the areas of the Golden Triangle, (an expanse covering Laos, Thailand and Burma), thus providing accessibility and protection along the southeast border of China. In order to maintain their relationship with the warlords while continuing to fund the struggle against communism, the U.S. and France supply the drug warlords and their armies with ammunition, arms and air transport for the production and sale of opium. The result: an explosion in the availability and illegal flow of heroin into the United States and into the hands of drug dealers and addicts.
  • 1962 – Burma outlaws opium.
  • 1965-1970 – U.S. involvement in Vietnam is blamed for the surge in illegal heroin being smuggled into the States. To aid U.S. allies, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sets up a charter airline, Air America, to transport raw opium from Burma and Laos. As well, some of the opium would be transported to Marseille by Corsican gangsters to be refined into heroin and shipped to the U.S via the French connection. The number of heroin addicts in the U.S. reaches an estimated 750,000.
  • 1972 – Heroin exportation from Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle becomes a major source for raw opium in the profitable drug trade.
  • July 1, 1973 President Nixon creates the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) under the Justice Dept. to consolidate virtually all federal powers of drug enforcement in a single agency.
  • Mid-1970’s – Saigon falls. The heroin epidemic subsides. The search for a new source of raw opium yields Mexico’s Sierra Madre. “Mexican Mud” would temporarily replace “China White” heroin until 1978.
  • 1971 – Nixon launches the War on Drugs.
  • 1978 – The U.S. and Mexican governments try to eliminate the source of raw opium – by spraying poppy fields with Agent Orange. The eradication plan is termed a success as the amount of “Mexican Mud” in the U.S. drug market declines. In response to the decrease in availability of “Mexican Mud”, another source of heroin is found in the Golden Crescent area – Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, creating a dramatic upsurge in the production and trade of illegal heroin.
  • 1988 – The largest heroin seizure is made, a 2,400-pound shipment that was en route to New York city from the Golden Triangle.
  • 1990’s – 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.
  • 1992 – Columbia’s drug lords introduce a high grade heroin into the U.S.
  • 1994 – The Clinton Administration orders a shift in policy away from the anti-drug campaigns of previous administrations. Instead the focus includes “institution building” with the hope that by “strengthening democratic governments abroad, [it] will foster law-abiding behavior and promote legitimate economic opportunity.”
  • 1996 – Khin Sa, one of the most powerful drug lords surrenders.
  • 2002- Post invasion of Afghanistan resumes opium production, eventually producing 95% of the world’s supply.
  • 2003 – The National Drug Intelligence Agency reports heroin being abused at high rates in the northeastern states.
  • 2004 – Consumer groups file a lawsuit against Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharma. The FDA grants a product license to Prudue’s pain medication Palladone, a high dose, extendedrelease form hydromorhone.
  • September 2004 – Singapore announces plans to execute a heroin user, Chew Seow Leng. Under new Singapore law, heroin users that take more than 15 grams of heroin a day are considered traffickers and face a mandatory death sentence.
  • 2006 – Congress passes a bill in Mexico legalizing the personal use of all drugs. The bill is referred back to Congress for changes.
  • 2008 – A report by The Pew Centre, a Washington think tank, reveals that over one in 100 adults in the USA is now in jail: some 2,300,000 prisoners, triple the rate in the 1980s. American prisons now hold around a quarter of the world’s inmates. Nearly half of US federal prisoners are imprisoned for non-violent, drug-related “crimes”. Law professor Paul Cassell of the University of Utah comments on the size of the US prison population: “it’s the price of living in the most free society in the world.”
  • 2009 – FDA announces a plan to further restrict opioid pain medications.
  • 2013 – Demographic for heroin addiction shows shift. In 2000, the highest death rate from heroin overdoses was in blacks ages 45 to 64. But in 2013, whites ages 18 to 44 had the highest rate. Whites in that age group accounted for more than half of the heroin-related overdose deaths that year.
  • 2014 – Overdose count continues to grow. More than 8000 heroin-related deaths occurred in 2013, compared to nearly 6000 in 2012. The rates increased significantly since 2010, when deaths numbered about 3,000. Heroin-related deaths were up among both men and women, in all age groups, and in whites, blacks, and Hispanics.
  • 2015 – Policymakers from both ends of the political spectrum call the War on Drugs a failure and decry the mass incarceration of drug offenders. New approaches to addiction are examined, and states continue to approve medications like naloxone, buprenorphine, and methadone to treat heroin overdoses.
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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