Is There a Heroin Epidemic? The Surprising History of Heroin in the United States

It’s an innocent-looking powder, white to brown in color, that seems like such an innocuous substance. Yet heroin has been wreaking havoc in people’s lives for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Derived from the opium poppy, heroin was once sold over the counter as a pain reliever and substitute for the “more addictive” morphine products. Today, nearly everyone knows that heroin is an addictive opiate that can be difficult to quit.

The history of heroin spans the globe, starting in ancient Sumeria and making its way into the wild, wild West. Today, the heroin epidemic that America is facing is centered in the East Coast, but drug cartels in Mexico are making inroads into importing heroin through the south. Heroin is everywhere.

The Heroin Epidemic Grows Deadlier

The Center for Disease Control defines an epidemic as, “an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area.” The statistics support the notion that there is a heroin epidemic in the United States today.

heroin epidemic america

Heroin addiction is frightening. An estimated 467,000 people in the United States are addicted to heroin, according to a 2014 Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control presentation. That number is expected to rise. Worldwide, heroin addiction has between 26.4 million and 34 million people in its grip.

Not everyone who uses heroin is considered an addict. It’s important to look beyond the addiction figures and peer into the usage figures, too:

  • Heroin usage almost doubled from 2005 to 2012, moving from 380,000 to 670,000 ‘past year users,’ or the number of people who identified as using heroin in the past year.
  • In 2012, there were 2,789 fatal heroin overdoses, an increase of about 50 percent over the past decade.

Is there a heroin epidemic? According to the CDC’s definition – an increase in the number of cases over what is normally expected – these figures support the assertion that there is a heroin epidemic in the United States today.

The History of Heroin From Sumeria to America

Heroin traces its history back to ancient Mesopotamia, where the Sumerians cultivated the opium poppy. Known as the joy plant, opium was first cultivated around 3,400 B.C. It was known throughout the ancient Middle East and into Arabia and Egypt as a powerful drug that induced hypnotic dreams.

Once Europeans began traveling into this region during the Middle Ages, they brought the important medicine back with them into Europe. In an age when there were few pain relievers, the wealthy clamored for the rare and highly prized drug to relieve pain from tuberculosis and cancer.

Opium traveled around the world until a German chemist isolated a new opium derivative called morphine. By the mid-1800s, morphine found its way into the United States, where doctors considered it nothing short of a miracle. They could now relieve pain during and after operations.

The American Civil War increased the demand in America for morphine as the horrific battle injuries left many soldiers with amputated limbs. These same soldiers returned from the war addicted to the new drug. This was the first-known epidemic of drug addicts in the United States. At that time, doctors didn’t understand addiction and were stymied as to how to treat the addicted soldiers.

Then along came the answer to their prayers: heroin. In 1874, an English researcher named C.R. Wright synthesized the first known heroin by boiling down morphine. Heroin wasn’t widely known until the German chemist Heinrich Dreser also stumbled upon a similar discovery in 1895. Dreser is often cited as the man who discovered heroin.

Dreser worked for The Bayer Company of Germany, and it wasn’t long until Bayer rolled out its new product: heroin. They launched heroin as a painkiller in 1898. The company’s marketing campaign featured heroin as the non-addictive substitute for morphine.

Why Was a Substitute for Morphine Needed?

In many parts of the world, including the United States, drug use was on the rise. Many people found themselves unexpectedly addicted to opium and its derivative, morphine.

Opium traveled from China to America with the Chinese immigrants landing on the West Coast in the mid to late 1800s. As the immigrants made their way inland, so too did opium, heroin’s grandfather.

We often think about the Wild West as a land populated with tough whiskey-swilling cowboys hanging around saloons. Opium dens, however, were even more popular places to spend the night back in the Old West. Many famous Western tough-guy figures, including Kit Carson and Wild Bill Hickock, were known to spend the evenings smoking opium instead of drinking whiskey.

By this time, morphine-based products in the United States were made for infants and adults alike. There are advertisements from the time touting teething products for babies laced with morphine. Women were often prescribed laudanum, an opium/alcohol combination, for monthly period pain and cramps.

Doctors wouldn’t have called morphine and opium addictions an epidemic per se, but they knew that many of their patients relied heavily on their daily dose of “medicine” to get through the day, and it wasn’t healthy. They were eager to find a safe substitute for opium, laudanum and morphine. Heroin seemed like the answer for their patients.

The Heroin Epidemic in America

A heroin epidemic that America had never seen before arrived in the late 1800s. Pharmaceutical companies sold kits containing vials of cocaine, heroin and morphine to doctors, who distributed these substances to their patients, inadvertently making them addicts. By the 1920s, the United States recognized that heroin abuse and addiction was rampant, along with many other opiates, and it began regulating sales of these drugs. Over-the-counter purchases became illegal, and distribution was highly regulated.

is there a heroin epidemic

By 1925, there were an estimated 200,000 heroin addicts in the United States. From the Great Depression to the Vietnam War, heroin remained a street drug, used mostly by musicians and society’s undesirables. Drug abuse was so rare by World War II that it was seen as a minor societal problem. All that changed with the heroin epidemic in the 1960s.

Heroin Epidemic: 1960s

In the United States, the heroin epidemic of the 1960s started similarly to the morphine epidemic in the late 1800s. Like the American Civil War, the Vietnam War left behind as one of its unintended consequences a generation of drug addicts.

The 1960s saw the rise of the drug culture as young people experimented with marijuana, LSD and other psychoactive drugs. Heroin use was so uncommon that in 1959, there were just 47 known heroin addicts. That number began to climb in 1964 to 328. By 1970, however, heroin use surged, and it became the leading cause of drug-related deaths.

heroin epidemic 1960s

Although it’s easy to blame the freewheeling drug culture of the ’60s for this rise, the growing use of heroin can be traced to the soldiers returning from Vietnam. Heroin was cheap and readily available to men serving in Vietnam, and many became addicted to it during their service years. When they returned to America, they continued abusing the drug and shared it with others. Vietnam’s soldiers used heroin to self-medicate during the horrors of war and returned to civilian life addicted.

After the fall of Saigon, the trade of China-based heroin stopped abruptly and new sources were needed. These were found in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. By 1970, heroin was on the upswing again as trade resumed.

Heroin Epidemic: 1970s

The heroin epidemic of the 1970s came to the United States through a different route than the China heroin trade. New sources arrived from Mexico, smuggled into the country from the Middle East. The new heroin was dubbed, “Mexican Mud,” and fueled the heroin epidemic that was sweeping the nation, especially the major cities. Inner cities throughout the United States experienced an epidemic like had never been seen before as heroin use increased.

Heroin Epidemic: 1980s

During the 1980s, heroin use declined as the price of heroin increased, making it less appealing to newcomers. Other drugs became more popular, including cocaine, crack cocaine and ecstasy. The frightening new disease, HIV/AIDS, also discouraged heroin use once the link between sharing needles was discovered. It looked like the heroin epidemic of the 1970s had started to wane.

’90s Heroin Epidemic

The ’90s heroin epidemic took the face of heroin in a whole different direction. Users prior to the 1990s tended to be inner-city kids or Vietnam vets. Burned into the public’s mind was the image of street-corner junkies with needle tracks on their arms begging for change to score their next high. Now, however, that image had to be replaced by the new white, middle-class American kids trying heroin as their next big adventure.

During the ’90s heroin epidemic, the new heroin addict was under age 25 and predominantly white. These teens and young adults bought into the heroin-chic myth, that heroin was somehow a trendy drug to try. Many of this new generation of addicts lived in comfortable suburban environments.

90s heroin epidemic

In New York City alone, the statistics were startling. By the end of the decade, 29,000 people had been admitted to heroin addiction treatment in New York City alone.

The new heroin emerging onto the drug scene between 1990 and 2000 was a cheaper, purer form of heroin than users had ever seen before. A two-gram bag sold for $10 on the street in 2003, an affordable high for many addicts. This made heroin an easy entry drug for teens and young adults who couldn’t afford the higher price of cocaine and other drugs.

heroin epidemic grows deadlier

The Link Between Prescription Painkillers and the Heroin Epidemic

One often-overlooked link is the connection between the rise of newer, stronger prescription painkillers and the ’90s heroin epidemic. Drugs such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet are now acknowledged as gateway drugs into heroin addiction.

Many of these pain medications are prescribed for legitimate reasons, such as pain caused by lower back problems, osteoarthritis or other chronic conditions. They aren’t meant to be used for long periods of time, however. Everyone’s threshold for addiction differs, and some people can become hooked on prescription painkillers easily.

The CDC states that in 2013, almost two million people abused prescription painkillers. These opium-related drugs are chemical cousins to heroin. People who become addicted to these prescription medications are at a much greater risk of becoming addicted to opiates such as heroin. Some experts say that the numbers behind today’s heroin addiction are merely a symptom of the greater, underlying prescription-painkiller-abuse epidemic.

Today: The Heroin Epidemic Continues

The heroin epidemic that began innocently in the quest to find a safer version of morphine in the 19th century continues today. New challenges that face law enforcement officials seeking to stem the tide of heroin entering the country include sophisticated criminal networks that import heroin into the United States. These networks span the entire globe and are well-funded, organized criminal enterprises.

Heroin addicts themselves have changed, too. As the young adult addicts of the ’90s aged into the homeowners, parents and professionals of today, they brought their heroin addiction along with them. Many still imagine a heroin addict as inner-city youth, but the face of heroin today may be a soccer mom driving a carload of kids to practice, a dad cooking dinner for his family, or a young professional who uses on the weekends and sobers up enough to continue holding down a white-collar job during the week. These individuals may be just as addicted as the corner junkie — they just hide it better.

Changes in how the drug is ingested have also made today’s epidemic worse. New Mexican heroin can be snorted like cocaine instead of injected, removing the risk of HIV/AIDS from shared needles and the disgust of having to inject oneself with the drug.

Today’s heroin addict doesn’t have to leave the comfort of his or her living room to buy drugs, either. Internet-based applications such as Tor, originally developed for the military, have been adapted to civilian use and ensure anonymous web surfing. Websites such as Silk Road (which was shut down in 2014) and other Tor-based sites allowed drug users to buy heroin and other dangerous, addictive drugs online. Parents who thought they were protecting their kids by keeping them off the streets and away from undesirable friends found out the hard way that their children were still abusing drugs. Silk Road’s founder was sentenced to life imprisonment after the deaths of six people were blamed on his illegal drug service.

As new methods of heroin development, sales and distribution evolve, new methods are needed to combat the epidemic. If we let the epidemic continue to grow and wait until people are in crisis to combat it, it will be too late.

Hope for Heroin Addiction

If you or someone you love is caught in the current heroin epidemic, there is a lifeline waiting for you. That lifeline is 12 Keys Rehab.

At 12 Keys Rehab, individualized support and care are offered to anyone seeking freedom from a heroin addiction.  Our staff offers 24/7 care, support and encouragement to help you overcome your heroin addiction, regain your health and heal your life.

Heroin addiction causes many withdrawal symptoms, some of which can be life-threatening. At 12 Keys Rehab, we are available around the clock to ensure your health, comfort and safety during withdrawal. After your initial detox period, recovery focuses on healing your body, mind and spirit to help you overcome addiction to heroin.

To get help now, call 12 Keys Rehab. You don’t have to suffer from drug addiction in silence. Help is waiting for you. Hope and healing from heroin addiction are waiting for you at 12 Keys Rehab.

The Addiction Blog