History of Heroin

In 1874 C.R. Alder Wright boiled morphine with acetic anhydride and created a substance which would not be given the name ‘heroin’ until twenty years later in Germany. The German pharmaceutical company, Bayer, began marketing it as a non-addictive treatment for respiratory illnesses, such as coughs, catarrh, bronchitis, emphysema, tuberculosis and asthma, as well as for laryngitis and hay fever. Due to previous experience with the use of morphine as a treatment for pain, physicians were aware of the addictive properties of such drugs. Thus, heroin was only prescribed in smaller doses, and patients were expected to take it orally rather than intravenously. However, its false classification as a non-habit forming drug led to the substitution of heroin for morphine in an attempt to wean patients from their morphine addictions and provide the same therapeutic benefits. (Davenport-Hines, 2001)

At the beginning of the twentieth century national legislation in the USA and the international anti-narcotics movement prohibited recreational drug use. By 1910 heroin, which had not yet been identified as a dangerous narcotic, began to replace other opiates and cocaine as the drug of choice because it was cheaper and easier to obtain. Despite the affirmation in the British Pharmaceutical Codex of 1911 of the equally addictive powers of heroin, medical practitioners in Britain, unlike elsewhere, maintained the right to prescribe (uncontrolled) opiate drugs to addicts, resulting in an increasing number of addicts but the absence of an addict subculture until the early 1960s. Before 1960 the opiate addict population in the UK consisted primarily of middle-aged, middle-class doctors and patients, few of whom were taking heroin. Post-1960 drug addicts from North America, who were aware of the availability of opiate prescriptions, began migrating to the UK, and daily prescriptions of heroin, in particular, increased steadily. (Strang et al, 2005, Vol. 2)

In 1968 NHS drug clinics were established in order to control the drug ‘epidemic’ amongst the younger population. The aim was to prevent over-prescribing practices by doctors, drug-related deaths and criminal acts associated with an underground drug culture. Rather than curbing drug use, however, the practice became institutionalized and the number of heroin addictions rose. Today prescriptions of injectable heroin and methadone continue to be given to opiate addicts as ‘treatment’. However, only 1 or 2% of the estimated 250,000 heroin users in the UK receive a prescribed supply. This is, in part, due to the choice many UK doctors make to abstain from prescribing heroin or methadone to addicts, although all doctors who work in NHS drug treatment centres are licensed to offer this form of maintenance and detoxification. (ibid)

Under the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971 heroin was classified among Class A drugs, which are those considered to be the most harmful. The penalty for possession is a maximum of 7 years imprisonment or an unlimited fine, and the penalty for dealing is a maximum of lifelong imprisonment or an unlimited fine. In 2000 12,297 people were found guilty for drug offences involving heroin.