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History of Heroin

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Heroin is an illegal substance which has a lengthy history that many are unaware of. Heroin is classified as both an opioid and depressant drug. Heroin can reduce pain and cause temporary feelings of euphoria. Heroin is a highly addictive substance, with approximately 1.1 million individuals, ages 12 years or older, reportedly engaging in its use within a 12 month period. (1) Many individuals, whether they engage in heroin use or not, are unaware of the history of heroin and how it became the substance that it is today. This article explores opium and heroin history, and how it was able to evolve into the substance that is known today.

If you or someone you love have difficulties controlling heroin use, despite experiencing negative consequences, opioid use disorder may be present. It can be hard to understand the complexities associated with substance use and its treatment. Here at Guardian Recovery, we offer psychoeducation and comprehensive treatment options for those experiencing substance use. With dual diagnosis options, we can also help you or a loved one tackle any comorbid mental health disorders. Contact us today to learn more and get started on your recovery journey.

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How Was Heroin Originally Used?

Understanding the reasons why heroin was used in the past may be surprising to some. In the past, heroin was used for pain relief and to treat some mental health disorders. Those residing in Europe used morphine to help treat insomnia, coughs, and conditions such as pneumonia. It was not uncommon for mothers to give their upset babies morphine for soothing purposes, though this often led to their untimely death. (2) Morphine was used heavily during the civil war, mostly to aid with amputations. This led to many addictions and even overdoses during this time. Today, 13,165 individuals died of a heroin related overdose in 2020. (3)

The Historical Use of Opium & the Poppy Plant

For centuries, people harvested opium for various uses. Opium is found in the sap of the opium poppy plant. 3400 BCE is the earliest reference of opium, which was also in Mesopotamia. (4) Individuals at this time referred to it as the “joy plant”. (5) As knowledge of its abilities grew, opium use began to spread along the silk roads and eventually made its way to China, where the opium wars began. (6) The opium wars were a series of wars between China and Europe regarding the trafficking of opium. During this time, opium was primarily used to aid with sleep, bowel movements, and poisonings. Today, opium is grown throughout Latin America, Mexico, Columbia. (7)

Who Invented Heroin?

Though opium has been used for thousands of years, heroin use did not occur until 1874. Though heroin comes from a natural plant, it needs to be chemically altered to become what it is known as today. A chemist named Charles Romley Adler Wright was the first person on record to accomplish this. (8) Wright is credited as the individual who invented heroin. The discovery of heroin was done by mixing morphine with different acids. After this, Wright boiled the substance, leading to his discovery.

Discovery & Production of Morphine From Opium

Heroin is produced from morphine. Morphine is a natural substance that can be found in poppy plants. (9) A resin is extracted from the plants, then the impurities are removed. The production of heroin from morphine is known as acetylation. Acetylation makes heroin more dangerous than morphine due to the effects that it has on the body.

Medicinal Uses of Heroin in the 1900s

A pharmaceutical company, known as Bayer, marketed morphine as a cough syrup and pain reliever in the late 1800s. Heroin was marketed as not addictive during this time.  It was used to help treat illnesses such as tuberculosis, bronchitis, and other cough related conditions. (10) Bayer stopped selling morphine in 1918 as more information regarding its addictive properties were understood.

Heroin as a Substitute for Morphine Addiction

In 1906, Heroin was approved by the American Medical Association for use as a replacement for morphine. Doctors and others at this time did not believe heroin to be as addictive as morphine. During this time, addiction to morphine was becoming a public health crisis. (11)

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When Did Heroin Create an Opioid Epidemic?

Morphine became available in the United States around the 1850s. Soon after, it was apparent that morphine was addictive, and this is when heroin was first used as its replacement. Like morphine, doctors quickly realized that heroin was also extremely addictive. As such a widely used substance, by 1902, 200,000 individuals residing in New York were addicted to heroin. (12)

When Did Heroin Create an Opioid Epidemic?

Morphine became available in the United States around the 1850s. Soon after, it was apparent that morphine was addictive, and this is when heroin was first used as its replacement. Like morphine, doctors quickly realized that heroin was also extremely addictive. As such a widely used substance, by 1902, 200,000 individuals residing in New York were addicted to heroin. (12)

When Was Heroin Banned in the U.S.?

By 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Act was passed to help reduce the amount of individuals addicted to cocaine, marijuana, and heroin. (15) This made heroin use illegal, and the arrest of individuals still using the substance began. In 1924, the New York police department reported that 94% of all crimes were committed by those dependent on heroin. (16) This led to heroin becoming a Schedule I substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration, making it also illegal for medical use. (17) Heroin was essentially banned because it caused more harm than good to not only individuals, but to their communities as well.

Heroin Use Today

Thousands of years after its initial use, heroin addiction is still highly prevalent today. Approximately 1 million individuals, ages 12 years and older, were diagnosed with opioid use disorder in 2020. (18) Understanding the signs of addiction can help individuals identify if they or a loved one are dependent on heroin.

Signs of a heroin addiction include:

  • Having uncontrollable cravings
  • Having difficulties concentrating
  • Isolating oneself from friends and family
  • Neglecting personal responsibilities
  • No longer being interested in activities that were enjoyable in the past
  • Neglecting personal hygiene
  • Engaging in risky or dangerous behavior
  • Increased need for sleep
  • Continuing heroin use despite experiencing clinical distress in relational, occupational, or other important areas of life.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms

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Luckily, treatment for heroin and opioid use is available. Here at Guardian Recovery, we offer evidence-based treatment options, including heroin specific detoxification services. Starting the recovery process may feel tough, however, you are not alone. With residential inpatient, partial hospitalization, and outpatient options, we can help guide you through the recovery journey. Contact us to receive a free, no obligation insurance benefits check. Once you reach out, A Treatment Advisor will speak with and help you get started. Start your recovery and wellness journey with Guardian Recovery.


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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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