Heroin Addiction -- How it started



The History of Heroin Addiction in the United States

There are actually two stories to tell when discussing heroin addiction in the United States, as one story came from Asia and the other from Germany. Heroin is a part of a family of drugs called opiates, and their stories intertwine in our history.

The drug opium, made from poppy seeds, was introduced into the U.S. in the mid-1800’s by Chinese immigrants, who came to this country to work on the ever-expanding railroad. The workers brought it with them.

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One usually thinks of cowboys bellying up to the bar in the Wild West, but opium dens were just as common.

Opium had been around for centuries, and in approximately 1810, a German scientist, derived morphine from opium. Because of the dream-like state it created in the user, it was named after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams, by a pharmacist, Dr. F.W.A. Serturner.

It found its way to this country in the 1850’s, and it was widely used in the Civil War. It was effective in treating severe pain and embraced by the medical community. But there were unexpected consequences.

The problem was, morphine, like opium, is addictive and by the end of the war, tens of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers had become dependent.

An old hymn, “Oh God and Father of Mankind” borrowed from John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem, “The Brewing of Soma,” and was written as a response to the use of morphine during the Civil War. Whittier recognized the struggle to cope with pain, brokenness and limitation experience by those suffering from the clutches of morphine. He wrote:

Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,
Forgive us our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service fine,
In deeper reverence praise.

Drop Thy still of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls,
The storm and stress,
And let our ordered lives
The beauty of Thy peace.

Breathe through the hearts of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be numb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.

The medical community was at a loss in how to deal with this. But “help” was on the way. Back in Germany work continued on morphine and in 1874 we were introduced to HEROIN.

According to the German scientists, heroin was an excellent alternative to morphine because it was “safe and non-addictive.”

Heroin was even recommended for children.

Morphine and heroin had established a strong foothold in the United States. Getting back to the other side of the country for a moment, opium dens were common in the West. Rather than go to the saloon, cowboys would sometimes spend days reclined in these dimly lit dens, smoking opium and getting friendly with Asian prostitutes.

Because of the chronic use of the drug, many would develop a heroin addiction. However, alcohol was considered to be a bigger problem, so some bright person suggested that opium would be a good cure for alcoholism.

Other “medicines” were created. Laudanum, for example, was basically opium and alcohol, and given out like aspirin to adults and children. It “cures what ails ya.” Another drug, cocaine, was also introduced and used as medicine.

Opium, morphine, heroin addiction, cocaine and alcohol were all big problems long before the 20th Century. But the problem was becoming apparent. Government doesn’t move quickly and by the time Congress passed the Dangerous Drug Act in 1920, making over-the-counter sale of these drugs illegal, the effort was ineffective. In Great Britain, the Dangerous Drug Act centered around the need to curb cocaine use.

By 1925, heroin addiction was present in over 200,000 in the U.S. and since that time there has been a great effort to curb the distribution and use of heroin and other illegal and deadly drugs.

What is heroin addiction?

Heroin is a highly addictive drug, made from morphine, which is made from opium, a processed derivative from a natural substance harvested from the seedpods of poppy plants. The drug appears as a white powder, although it is sometimes also seen as a brown powder.

The drug is usually injected, but it can also be smoked, or snorted.

Users inject because the intensity of the high is greater, and chronic users may inject up to four times or more each day.

The user gets his “rush” within seconds after the injection. When the drug is smoked or snorted, it may take up to 15 minutes for it to take effect. The “rush” is not as intense. The National Institute on Drug Abuse warns that regardless of the way the drug is taken, it’s extremely addictive. In recent years, the smoking and snorting of heroin has been widely reported among those seeking treatment for addiction. Many have a misconception that heroin addiction only happens if (they) inject it; NOT TRUE!

Although people over 30 are the largest user group according to national data, there is an alarming indication that young users are being attracted by a high purity form of the drug, which is also inexpensive. This form of the drug is usually smoked or sniffed, not injected.

How did heroin come to the United States?

Opium found its way into the United States in the 1800’s when Chinese immigrants came to work on the railroad. They brought opium with them, and while we may have an image of the Wild West being riddled with saloons, opium dens were once as common.

Morphine was developed from opium around 1810 in Germany for use in blocking pain. The medicine came to this country in the 1850’s and was widely used in the Civil War.

The unexpected consequence of morphine was addiction, as tens of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers became addicts.

Meanwhile, back in Germany, a supposedly “safe and non-addictive” form of morphine was being developed and in 1874 we were introduced to heroin and heroin addiction.

This “miracle drug” would do everything that morphine did, only without the negative side effects. In fact, drug companies thought it was so safe they even recommended it for children. Heroin addiction became such a problem that it was included in the Dangerous Drug Act of 1920, as Congress tried to stop the dreadful tide of heroin addiction.

What does heroin do?

Heroin is a central nervous system depressant that gives the user a “rush,” an intense feeling of pleasure, euphoria.

- The user feels a warm flush to the skin. The user’s arms and legs feel heavy, and relaxed.

- Dry mouth is common.

- Users may feel sleepy one moment and be wide awake another.

- The central nervous system is depressed under heroin, and mental functions slow down.

These are all short-term effects.

Long-term, abuse and heroin addiction can lead to:

- Collapsed veins.

- Serious, unseen problems can occur, such as heart problems, infections of the heart lining and valves.

- Cellulites and liver disease can develop, as well as pulmonary disease.

- Addicts who are in poor health are in jeopardy of contracting pneumonia, as heroin depresses the respiratory system.

Users develop a tolerance to heroin and that leads to abuse and heroin addiction. Abusers need more and more heroin to get the same “rush” and as the amount of heroin needed grows, the dependence on the drug takes hold.

Addicts need the drug because their bodies become used to the drug being present, as if it were supposed to be there in order for everything to function.

The BRAIN has been fooled into thinking it “needs” the heroin.

Reduction in the amount of heroin used produces withdrawal symptoms, even though the addict is still using.

Even after a short period of time, as little as a few hours, the body wants more.

Addicts experience pain in the muscles and bones, diarrhea, chills, vomiting and insomnia. The worst of the symptoms of withdrawal occur 48 to 72 hours after taking the drug, and can linger on for a week.

Addicts who are in poor health are actually at risk of dying if the drug is taken away. However, a withdrawal is not as life-threatening or dangerous as barbiturate or alcohol withdrawal.

Overdose is COMMON

Users who take to the streets to find heroin, do not necessarily know what they are buying. The powder they think is heroin is actually a mixture of other substances heroin.

The heroin is cut with sugar, or quinine, or some other substance, even another drug.

The buyer does not know the dosage of the heroin, or the content of the mixture. As a result, overdoses are common. As users develop a tolerance to heroin, and take more and more to get high, the risks of overdose increase.

Heroin Addiction Health risks

Heroin is a major problem because of its serious health risks. Users who mainline heroin are in jeopardy of contracting AIDS and hepatitis from sharing dirty needles, and those users often sustain collapsed veins. Heroin overdose is a serious risk, and too often those overdoses are fatal. Women using this drug while pregnant can suffer a spontaneous abortion.

In another section of this web site we refer to rehab programs that administer alternatives to heroin. Please see the treatment page to understand heroin treatment risks!

This is done because of the danger involved with cutting the addict off and denying the body the opportunity to reset itself to functioning without the drug.

Where is it distributed?

Distributors and dealers of heroin target children for expanding their markets.

Schools are primary target areas for dealers.

The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System is a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The 2005 report indicated that among the students interviewed, 2.4% admitted to using heroin at least once in their life.

The Community Epidemiology Work Group measured strong heroin indicators in major North American cities.

Ranking highest were Baltimore, Newark, Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington DC. The study for the year 2004, indicates that 82% of drug treatment admissions in Newark were primarily for heroin abuse. Boston reported 74% and Baltimore 60%. These drug treatment admissions did not include those for alcohol.

The good news is that it appears as though heroin addiction and abuse might be declining slightly. Still, adults 21-25 are a problem area, as according to 2004 figures from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the percentage of users in that group increased.

For more about Heroin Addiction and Treatment click here


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