Monday, March 12, 2012

A History of Heroin

     Heroin, also known as diamorphine, is an opiate analgesic first synthesized in 1874 by the English chemist  and lecturer on chemistry in St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School, C. R . Alder Wright who cooked morphine with acetic anhydride and obtained  a white crystalline powder. Little used or even examined over the next twenty years, the substance known then as diacetyl morphine proved to be eight times as powerful a pain-killer as morphine.
Chemical Structure of Heroin

     It was Heinrich Dreser (1860 – 1924 ), the chief pharmacologist at the German pharmaceutical company 'Bayer AG who pursued investigation into this new morphine derivative. Dresler was responsible for both the aspirin (ie Bayer Aspirin) in association with colleague, Felix Hoffman and the heroin research projects'. That is, he was instrumental in the development of the most successful legal drug in the world (aspirin) as well as the most successful illegal drug (heroin). Later, he was also a major contributor to the most the widely used modern drug, Codeine.  

     Bayer launched its new analgesic in 1899 under the trade name Aspirin, just one year after it had launched heroin as a cough suppressant. This new cough treatment was called Heroin, a name likely derived from the German word for 'powerful' (heroisch).
Felix Hoffman (with hat) and Heinrich Dreser

     Before it hit the market, Dreser had tested the new product on stickleback fish, frogs, rabbits, on some of Bayer's workers as well as on himself. The workers loved it, some saying it made them feel 'heroic' or 'powerful' (heroisch).
     In November 1898, Dreser presented the drug to the Congress of German Naturalists and Physicians, claiming it was 10 times more effective as a cough medicine than codeine, but had only a tenth of its toxic effects. It was also more effective than morphine as a painkiller. It was safe. It wasn't habit-forming. In short, it was a wonder drug.
Bayer AG

     Tuberculosis and pneumonia were then the leading causes of death, and even routine coughs and colds could be severely incapacitating. Heroin, which both depresses respiration and, as a sedative, gives a restorative night's sleep, seemed a godsend. Heroin filled the desperate need of the time, not for a pain-killer but rather for a remedy for the cough.
     The initial response to its launch was overwhelmingly positive.  Free samples were sent out by the thousand to physicians in Europe and the US. The label on the samples showed a lion and a globe. (There is a notorious brand of Burmese heroin, Double Globe, that uses remarkably similar packaging today.)
Bayer Heroin

     By 1899, Bayer was producing over a ton of heroin a year, and exporting the drug to 23 countries, most of it to the US, where there was already a large population of morphine addicts. Manufacturers of cough syrup were soon lacing their products with Bayer heroin.
     There were heroin pastilles, heroin cough lozenges, heroin tablets, water-soluble heroin salts and a heroin elixir in a glycerine solution. Bayer never advertised heroin to the public but the publicity material it sent to physicians was unambiguous. One flyer described the product: 'Heroin: the Sedative for Coughs . . . order a supply from your jobber'.
     The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in 1900 wrote: 'It's not hypnotic, and there's no danger of acquiring a habit'.
     By 1902, when heroin sales were accounting for roughly five percent of Bayer's net profits and French and American researchers were reporting cases of 'heroinism' and addiction.

'Double Globe' Heroin
     In 1906, the American Medical Association approved heroin for medical use, though with strong reservations about a 'habit' that was 'readily formed'.
     But with the accumulation of negative reports, the heroin bubble eventually burst. But for Bayer and Dreser, the financial 'hole' was easily filled by their other even more famous product, Aspirin.
     In 1913, Bayer decided to stop making heroin. There had been an explosion of heroin-related admissions at New York and Philadelphia hospitals, and in East Coast cities a substantial population of recreational users was reported. Some of these users supported their habits by collecting and selling scrap metal and came to be known as 'junkies'. Prohibition seemed inevitable and, sure enough, the next year the use of heroin without prescription was outlawed in the US.

     In 1924, fifty years after the drug had first been synthesized, the US banned the use and manufacture of heroin altogether, even for medical purposes. Today, in the United Kingdom, the medical use of heroin is still legal and accounts for 95 percent of the world's legal heroin consumption.
     The same year as the US banned the use of heroin, Dreser died of a stroke. Conceivably, he might have been able to avert the stroke by simply taking an aspirin a day (a common recommendation by physicians today). Dreser had been taking one of the products produced by Bayer, however. The pharmacist had spent his twilight years taking a daily dose of the wrong wonder drug, heroin.
     The impact of Aspirin has been enormous, bringing in billions for Bayer even today when aspirin (ASA) is manufactured generically. The impact of heroin is harder to assess. In 1898, there were an estimated 250,000 morphine addicts in the US (twice as high as today, per capita). But the appearance of heroin played a crucial role in cementing the link between drug abuse and crime.
Heroin in a Bottle-Bayer
     Pharmacologically, heroin has the same effect as morphine. But you need only about a quarter as much to get the same 'high'. It is also cheaper, quicker and easier to use. As national and international legislation against opiates gathered force after 1914, addicts who wished to continue their habit inevitably switched to heroin. By 1924, 98 percent of New York's drug addicts were thought to be heroin addicts. With legal channels of supply closed, criminal gangs (first Jewish, then Italian ) began to monopolise the trade. By the end of the 1930s, the Mafia was inextricably involved.
The Mafia and the Heroin Trade

     Today, heroin use in Britain and the US is increasing faster than at any time since the 1960s: heroin seizures rose by 135 percent between 1996 and 1997. There are thought to be between 160,000 and 200,000 heroin addicts in the UK.
     The other great change resulting from Dreser's marketing of a faster-acting and more conveniently consumed opiate has been a change in the profile of the average opiate abuser. In 1898, the typical morphine addict in Britain or the US was a middle-class woman in her forties. Today's typical addict is an 18-year-old male.
    As with any human endeavour, the manufacture of heroin has evolved. Today, heroin comes in various forms.
Pure Heroin

     Pure heroin is a white powder with a bitter taste. The wide hue of color ranges in heroin is due to the impurities left from the manufacturing process or the presence of additives. Heroin is typically sold as a white or brownish powder or as the black sticky substance known on the streets as 'black tar heroin.'
     Although purer heroin is becoming more common, most street heroin is 'cut' with other drugs or with substances such as sugar, starch, powdered milk, or quinine. Street heroin can also be cut with strychnine or other poisons. Because heroin abusers do not know the actual strength of the drug or its true contents, they are risking overdose and possible death with each purchase of the drug.
     Brown (base) heroin is what's known as a 'base' rather than a salt, which means it doesn't dissolve in water very well. It is less pure than white heroin, making it less strong in the same quantities. Brown heroin burns at a lower temperature than white heroin, making it ideal for smoking and is much easier to make than white heroin.
Brown Heroin

     White (pure) heroin is a lot more difficult to manufacture than brown heroin. It requires an extra process that turns it into a salt, making it very pure and water-soluble. However, special chemicals, expertise and equipment are required and the last stage of the process can be very dangerous - it involves the use of ether which can explode and destroy an entire laboratory. Because white heroin is a salt it burns at a much higher temperature than brown heroin, so it is not much good for smoking. White heroin dissolves in very easily in water, making this variety the preferred method among intravenous users.
     Black tar heroin is mainly produced in Mexico. The color may vary from dark brown to black and may be sticky like roofing tar or hard like coal. The color and consistency of black tar heroin result from the crude processing methods used to illicitly manufacture heroin in Mexico.
Black Tar Heroin

     Black tar heroin is most frequently dissolved, diluted, and then injected. Black tar heroin addicts place a small amount of black tar heroin in a spoon. The spoon they use is bent so that it sits level without spilling the heroin when it is placed on a table. Then they add a small amount of water and it is heated over a flame. Once the black tar heroin has melted, it is drawn up into a syringe and injected.
     This method of administration poses special problems because of the transmission of HIV and other diseases that can occur from sharing needles or other injection equipment.  Black tar heroin is cheaper and faster to produce than true heroin producing a 'high'  that  usually lasts from four to six hours.
     The origins of the present international illegal heroin trade can be traced back to laws passed in many countries in the early 1900s that attempted to regulate the production and sale of opium (and its derivatives such as heroin). At first, heroin flowed from countries where it was still legal into countries where it was no longer legal. By the mid-1920s, heroin production had been made illegal in many parts of the world. An illegal trade developed at that time between heroin labs in China (mostly in Shanghai and Tianjin) and other nations.
     Heroin trafficking was virtually eliminated in the U.S. during WWII because of temporary trade disruptions caused by the war. Japan's war with China had cut the normal distribution routes for heroin and the war had generally disrupted the movement of opium. After World War II, organized crime took advantage of the weakness of the postwar Italian government and set up heroin labs in Sicily, along the historic route taken by opium from east to west into Europe and the United States. At about the same time, with the Communist takeover in China in 1949, large-scale international heroin production effectively ended in China further supporting Sicily's role in the heroin trade.
     Although it remained legal in some countries until after World War II, health risks, addiction, and widespread recreational use led most western countries to declare heroin a controlled substance by the latter half of the 20th century.
World Regions of Heroin Production

     In late 1960s and early 1970s, the anti-Communist Chinese Nationalists supported by the C.I.A. settled near China's border with Burma (Myanmar) which led to the development of the Golden Triangle opium production region, which supplied about one-third of heroin consumed in US after 1973 American withdrawal from Vietnam. As of 1999, Burma, the heartland of the Golden Triangle remained the second largest producer of heroin, after Afghanistan.
     By 1980, 60% of all the heroin sold in the U.S. originated in Afghanistan.
     The onset of heroin's effects depends upon the how the drug is taken. Studies have shown that the subjective pleasure of drug use (the reinforcing component of addiction) is proportional to the rate at which the blood level of the drug increases. Intravenous injection is the fastest route of drug administration, causing blood concentrations to rise the most quickly, followed by smoking, suppository (anal or vaginal insertion), snorting, and swallowing.
Intravenous Heroine

     Large doses of heroin can cause fatal respiratory depression, and the drug has been used for suicide or as a murder weapon. The serial killer Dr. Harold Shipman used heroin on his patient/victims, as did Dr. John Bodkin Adams (see post: Death by Physician).
     Respiratory depression (loss of spontaneous breathing) is the most common cause of lethal overdose of heroin. Many in the entertainment industry have fallen victim to this disease of addiction. Heroin overdose, whether by accident or by purposeful suicide or homicide is part of a sad history, sometimes resulting in the 'Last song of the Opium Eaters'.

     *The history of drug addiction: subject of research for the novel Whip the Dogs - Amazon Kindle

1 comment:

  1. You are absolutely right that death toll is being enhanced rapidly. There are a lot of drugs that we look around us but the DMT is the worst one without fail.