Drug Rehabilitation Blog

Heroin Detox: Statistics and Information on Recovery for Heroin Addicts

What is the History of Heroin?

Heroin History
What is the History of Heroin?

The tragedy of heroin abuse hit news headlines recently with the deaths of actors Cory Monteith and Philip Seymour Hoffman. An autopsy just revealed that Oscar winner Hoffman died of a mixture of heroin, cocaine, amphetamines, and benzodiazepines (anti-anxiety drugs). While these deaths of talented actors were tragic and heartbreaking, heroin takes lives on a daily basis and has since its inception.

The Origins of Heroin

Heroin production ultimately started with a poppy. This is the opium poppy which has been used for medicinal and psychoactive purposes for centuries. Back in about 3400 B.C. the opium poppy was called the “joy plant” and was used as a recreational drug and in the medical profession to numb pain.

Fast forward through the centuries and you will see opium used in teas, chewed on, eaten, smoked, snorted, injected, as a painkiller, as a medicine, as a trade good, for its euphoric effect, for wounded soldiers on the battlefield, as a reason for war, and much more.

During this time, use or abuse of opium was often followed by an epidemic of addiction. In an attempt to nullify opium’s addictive properties, a German named Friedrich Sertuerner experimented with opium. He came up with morphine in 1803. Physicians at that time believed that morphine was safe, reliable, and non-addictive. In 1827 a German company started manufacturing morphine commercially. Then, in 1843, Dr. Alexander Wood in Scotland found a more effective and potent way to administer morphine – through injection. During this time, women were more likely to use opium or morphine than men. Drinking alcohol was a men’s pastime, while taking opium was acceptable among women.

Later on, soldiers became the new face of morphine addiction. Morphine utilized during battlefield operations in the Civil War created veterans who were addicted to the drug.

1891 saw the first recorded death by “speedball,” which is traditionally a mix of heroin and cocaine. This was the death of Dr. Ernest von Fleischl who died from a mix of morphine and cocaine. His death was caused by a prescription given to him by fellow doctor Sigmund Freud, who believed the cocaine would cure Dr. Fleischl of his addiction to morphine.

The Invention of Heroin

In 1895, Heinrich Dreser of Germany tried changing morphine chemically in hopes that it might alter the side-effects and extreme rates of addiction associated with morphine and opium. The company he worked for – the Bayer corporation – produced the drug and called it “Heroin.” They advertised this drug as a painkiller at least ten times as potent as morphine with no addictive properties whatsoever. Additionally, it was said that heroin use could completely cure opium and morphine addiction.

The Saint James Society in the US heard of this miracle cure for opium and morphine addiction. They started a campaign to supply free samples of heroin through the mail to morphine addicts attempting to kick the habit. This society was not the only US company attempting to help fight opium and morphine addiction by providing easy access to heroin. The Sears Roebuck catalog offered heroin and needles in a neat case for purchase.

This exaltation of heroin didn’t last very long. By 1902 physicians were arguing that heroin withdrawal was just as difficult and uncomfortable as withdrawal from morphine. In 1905, heroin was banned by US Congress. By this point in history, heroin addiction rates had risen to alarming levels.

The Heroin Trade

Drug legislation and restrictions became more numerous in the early 1900s. Opium import for the production of heroin was restricted, and then banned. This legislation helped, but did not stop heroin manufacture, export, abuse, and addiction. Addiction moved from an accidental problem caused by a drug with “unknown” effects to a risk that too many people were willing to take.

Treatment for addiction consisted of giving heroin to addicts in clinics which were sanctioned by law. These clinics remained open until 1924. After their shutdown, users had to obtain the drug through illegal means. By 1925, an estimated 1.7% of the US population was addicted to heroin. That’s a pretty large heroin demand – one that was filled by a growing network of criminal gangs. During Prohibition the underworld prospered, dealing in narcotics, alcohol, gambling, prostitution, and other illicit commodities.

From 1948 to 1972, heroin was considered an epidemic. Its main focal point was New York City. This epidemic is one of the issues in America that spurred then-President Nixon to create the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973.

The country of Vietnam was a major player in opium production. Others at this time were Laos, Thailand, and Burma – also known as the “Golden Triangle.” These major opium producers were eclipsed by the “Golden Crescent” in and around Afghanistan. In modern times the South American and Mexican drug cartels have become major players in the heroin industry.

Modern Opiate Abuse and Treatment

Heroin, morphine, and opium are no longer the only opiates that Americans are abusing and becoming addicted to. Opioids like Percocet and Vicodin (hydrocodone), OxyContin (oxycodone), Opana (oxymorphone hydrochloride), and others are now commonly abused. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 10.9% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 abused opiates or prescription painkillers in 2012.

As shown above, the “treatment” of addiction to opium and opioids throughout history has been largely ineffective as pharmaceutical corporations pump out newer drugs that are just as addictive, if not more so, than their predecessors.

One of the most common forms of heroin addiction treatment is called methadone maintenance treatment and is similar to the treatment given in the 1924 clinics for heroin addicts. Methadone, a Schedule 2 narcotic, is an opiate that was created in 1939 in Germany. It is currently used to treat opiate addiction by clinics that provide methadone daily to addicts for up to 12 months. The treatment can also occur over a period of years. Generally, the idea is to wean the addict off methadone very slowly over time.

Methadone has many drawbacks. This type of treatment is normally delivered on an outpatient basis, so the patient might continue using their drug of choice (such as heroin) while also taking methadone. Additionally, symptoms experienced during methadone withdrawal can be more dangerous than those of heroin withdrawal.

Other opiate treatment drugs like Suboxone (buprenorphine and naloxone) are more difficult to abuse, but they are also often administered on an outpatient basis, which can allow the addict to continue using.

Workable Solutions

A modern and often more effective option for addiction treatment is inpatient detoxification and rehabilitation.

This can include getting completely clean with the use of specific temporary medication to help the individual through the more difficult moments of the withdrawal process. Therapy, exercise, group activities, faith and spiritual pursuit also help the individual through this difficult time.

When the detox process is complete, the individual embarks upon rehab. This is often a structured action done in the company of others. Many rehabilitation facilities work with their clients on both an individual and group basis; others just offer group sessions. Often the individual attends classes and seminars with former addicts to help discover better means to handle the problems they sought to “solve” with drugs.

A holistic approach has proven workable in a vast number of cases as it deals with the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual issues that an addict has been grappling with.


  • Diane C

    I was really surprised to find out how long heroin has been around and that it was once legal! I had no idea. With the bad effects this drug has on the person taking it, I’m surprised that doctors would have prescribed it. I guess in another 100 years someone will look back on what doctors are prescribing today and feel the same way. This is a hard drug to kick so it is definitely important to get the person into a good rehab program to help them get through it.

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