Created | Updated Nov 27, 2009
Heroin (Diacetylmorphine) is an illegal narcotic and is also known as 'smack', 'skag', and 'H'. It is an opiate, and is a drug synthesised from the sap of the opium poppy . It's a white, bitter tasting, odourless powder, with an effect that has been described by comedian Lenny Bruce as 'kissing god'. Bruce died of a morphine overdose on 3 August, 1966.
A Brief History of Poppy Eating
Opiates have been used for thousands of years for pain relief and the calming euphoria they can induce. Inhabitants of the earliest civilisations seem to have been using opiates: for example, the Sumerians, a prominent civilization that existed over 5000 years ago, referred to the opium poppy as Hul Gil, the 'joy plant'.
By the 17th Century, trade in opium was widespread throughout the East and West. Apothecaries valued it as a medicine for many ailments, a divine gift from God to ease man's woes. Laudanum, a concoction of opium and wine, was recommended for those who were restless insomniacs:
... by reason of their continual cares, fears, sorrows, dry brains... a symptom that much crucifies melancholy men..
- Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton (1577-1640)
By 1680, cure-all opiate-based remedies like Sydenham's Laudanum, a compound of opium, sherry wine and herbs became popular for numerous ailments. As trade and inter-cultural communications increased, more people used opium for both recreation and pain relief.
In 1729, the Chinese emperor, Yung Cheng, prohibited the smoking of opium and its domestic sale, except under license for use as medicine. The British Empire sought a monopoly of the opium trade from India to China, flouting this prohibition, and in the 1860s they were exporting 2000 chests of opium each year. This led to the infamous Opium War.
By the 19th Century, opium was widely used in many parts of the world, and usage was increasing. British opium imports rose from 91,000lb in 1830 to 280,000lb in 1860. In 1842, William Blair described his experiences with opium in a New York magazine...
I felt a strange sensation, totally unlike any thing I had ever felt before; a gradual creeping thrill, which in a few minutes occupied every part of my body, lulling to sleep the before-mentioned racking pain, producing a pleasing glow from head to foot, and inducing a sensation of dreamy exhilaration.
By the mid to late 19th Century, the addictive and 'negative' effects of morphine were becoming evident to the powers that be in the Western world. William Randolph Hearst's media empire contained horror stories of white women seduced by the 'yellow peril' of the opium den.
Opium was banned in the UK in 1878. Physicians noted addiction as a real problem and started to develop withdrawal programmes. Meanwhile, chemists and pharmacologists were working to produce a drug with the benefits of morphine, but with no addictive side affects.
The Synthesis of Heroin
Heroin (diacetylmorphine) was first synthesised from morphine in 1874 when an English researcher simply boiled morphine over a stove. He found this new opiate to be three times stronger than morphine. The hypodermic needle had been developed in Edinburgh in the 1840s, and it was found that injecting drugs also significantly amplified their potency.
In 1895, Heinrich Dreser, working for the Bayer Company of Germany, acetylated morphine. This produced a diacetylmorphine he named 'heroin' (meaning 'hero'). It was developed just 11 days after the same lab made aspirin.
Heroin's increased lipid solubility allows it to cross the blood-brain barrier quickly. The drug in the body is reconverted back to morphine then binds to brain-tissue receptors. The proteins of the drug affect the brain's perception of pain and pleasure.
So, by 1897 the ancient's 'plant of joy' had been developed into injectable heroin - a potent drug that gives almost instant pain relief, and an intense brief euphoria followed by a few hours of dreamy blissful relaxation.
Opiods.com describes the chemical process thus:
Heroin mimics the action of natural chemicals, endorphins, produced by the body in response to pain. Endorphins are small-chain peptides that activate our endogenous opioid receptors. Their activation produces feelings of happiness, relaxation, fearlessness and tolerance to pain. Many users self-medicate: opioids are powerful antidepressants and antianxiety agents. Response and remission rates are high; but so are tolerance, dependence and addiction.
20th Century - Heroin Addiction and Prohibition
By 1900, Heroin was recognised as being an addictive drug. The US estimated 250,000 to one million users. In 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Act in the US taxed manufacture, importation, and distribution of heroin, and by 1924, manufacture of heroin was completely prohibited in the US.
As with prohibition of alcohol, simply banning a substance did not mean it ceased to exist. The demand for heroin remained. Opiate use had been a part of culture, and heroin use was a part of the jazz scene. Heroin addicts turned to the black market in areas like New York's Chinatown. Since there is money to be made from an illegal trade, enterprising criminals took over where pharmacies left off.
Usage of heroin seems to have steadily risen throughout the 20th Century though, given the unregulated nature of the black market, figures are unreliable. In the 1980s, the US government estimated 400 - 750,000 American heroin users, in the 1990s, that figure was closer to 1.5 million.
Prolonged usage causes physical damage to the body, although not necessarily directly from the drug itself. Many heroin users eventually forego personal hygiene, fail to eat properly and lose the will to do anything other than take more heroin. A user once said to this Researcher '... everything else is out of the window, it's the number one priority'. Some heroin users tell grim tales of deals in grim areas of town. Violent threats from more desperate users are not uncommon. Here's one Researcher's view:
Due to the current illegality of this drug, you often have to have serious problems before you find people who can get you any. On top of this, when you become addicted, it often costs more than you can afford to maintain the habit, and so your lifestyle goes downhill drastically. Having said that, if you are a serious drunk, similar things happen, due to the fact that in both cases, ensuring a continuing supply of the drug becomes the main goal in life. After this point, anyone's lifestyle rapidly goes down the tubes.
The use of dirty needles can result in diseases such as HIV and septicaemia. Pure heroin is rarely available on the black market, so there is also the risk of dangerous impurities. Street heroin is cut with cheaper substances, some benign, many harmful. 'Needle tracks' - ugly marks of bruising where the person has injected - may form, and can become infected.
Users can inject in many places on the body, and are often very good at covering their tracks. The stereotypical 'junkie,' huddled in a street corner, shoplifting, thieving or prostituting themselves to feed the habit is just that - a stereotype.
Heroin is a very dangerous, very addictive drug and a pretty desperate and miserable lifestyle choice.
Dealing with the Problem
The debate around the drugs war, prohibition, and the politics of crime and corruption in enforcing the ban on heroin remains contentious. Heroin use is connected with crime and unhappiness, and a social problem for those who know addicts and their single-minded compulsion for its euphoric amnesia.
Whatever you do, don't try heroin.
Please Note: h2g2 is not a definitive medical resource. If you have any health concerns you must always seek advice from your local GP. You can also visit NHS Direct or BBC Health Conditions.