The History of Heroin in the US - The Discovery House Los Angeles CA

The History of Heroin

There’s been lots of media coverage of the heroin epidemic in the United States but have you ever thought about the history of heroin? While it’s now an illegal street drug, it didn’t start out that way. 

The history of heroin usage in the US is actually long and quite interesting. Understanding the drug’s past can help you to understand the impact the drug is having on society today.

In this article, we’ll look at some interesting facts about heroin before discussing how heroin addiction can be tackled.

Precursors to Heroin

Heroin was invented in 1874 but its predecessors – morphine and opium – have been in use for millennia.

The Mesopotamians and Sumerians grew opium poppies from around 3400 B.C. and the practice spread to Greece, Egypt, India, and other countries. Meanwhile, the British Empire and other Western locales got their opium from India. 

The Invention of Heroin

The Invention of Heroin

Around 1805, French pharmacist Friedrich Sertürner discovered that he could isolate morphine from opium. As the drug became more refined, it was marketed to treat bronchitis, diarrhea, psychosis, insomnia, tuberculosis, pneumonia, alcoholism, and opium addiction.

Morphine was also used widely during the American Civil War to help soldiers manage the pain resulting from their injuries. Companies discovered that opiates could be big business.

In 1874, Charles Romney Alder Wright, an English chemist, started experimenting by mixing morphine with various acids. He eventually invented a new chemical called diacetylmorphine or diamorphine.

These are alternative names for heroin. The drug Wright invented was structurally similar to morphine but two or even three times stronger.

The History of Heroin in the US

The term heroin was first used by the pharmaceutical company Bayer when it branded its diamorphine drug in 1898. The word reportedly emerged because people who used the drug said they got a heroic feeling.

Bayer marketed heroin as a non-addictive pain medication and it was used during childbirth. Doctors also added it to cough medicine and used it as an anesthetic before surgery.

It quickly became clear that heroin was highly addictive and it was being misused. However, it was legally prescribed to both children and adults until the 1920s.

The US government only made heroin illegal in 1924. It remains illegal today and is classified as a Schedule 1 drug. This means it has no acceptable medical use and has a high risk of addiction.

The History of the Heroin Epidemic

Once heroin became illegal, drug traffickers filled the void. While the ongoing opioid crisis may seem like something new, there have been at least two heroin epidemics in the United States.

The first crisis began right after the conclusion of the Second World War and the number of addiction cases peaked in the early 1950s.

The second crisis began early in the 1970s and addiction levels remained high throughout the decade. Many of the people who became addicted to heroin were veterans of the Vietnam War.

Most of the soldiers who fought in that war were in their late teens or early 20s. They couldn’t consume alcohol on base but they had easy access to inexpensive heroin and other drugs. 

Heroin eventually gave way to crack cocaine which was especially popular with people who were uncomfortable injecting drugs. Today, it’s more common to smoke or snort heroin so it appeals to more people and this may contribute to the prevalence of heroin abuse.

The More Recent History of Heroin Use in the US

The More Recent History of Heroin Use in the US

Heroin is imported into the USA from several places including Mexico, Latin America, Southeast and Southwest Asia, and West Africa.

Most of it is a mixture of heroin and other drugs or substances including fentanyl, cocaine, quinine, sugar, baking soda, and starch. However, it’s also possible to get pure heroin.

Heroin use among the general population is quite low but the numbers have been rising steadily since 2007. One reason for this is that some people switch from abusing prescription opioids to heroin because it’s cheaper and more readily available. Some people also believe pure heroin is safer because it doesn’t have to be injected.

What we’re confronted with today is an opioid overdose epidemic. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 14,000 people died from a heroin-related overdose in 2019.

This was more than seven times the number recorded 20 years prior. Furthermore, more than a third of all opioid deaths involved the use of heroin.

In 2016, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) revealed that about 948,000 Americans reported using heroin over the previous year. The number of people who reported using heroin for the first time in 2016 was 170,000 compared to 90,000 in 2006.

While some people use heroin one time and never do it again, the drug is highly addictive. In 2016, 626,000 people met the DSM-IV criteria for dependence or heroin use disorder.

This was a dramatic increase over the  214,000 recorded in 2002. These statistics show just how serious heroin addiction is.

People who use heroin experience euphoria and they feel good for a short time. However, they can also experience negative side effects such as:

  • Dry mouth
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Heaviness in the limbs
  • Itchy skins
  • Problems thinking and concentrating 
  • Memory loss
  • Passing out
  • Drifting back and forth between consciousness and unconsciousness

In the long term, people who heroin can suffer serious health complications including organ damage and collapsed veins. People who use drugs intravenously are also at increased risk of contracting diseases like hepatitis and HIV.

In addition, addiction can lead to crime and violence and have a devastating impact on work, school, and family life.

How to Treat Heroin Addiction

Knowing the history of heroin isn’t enough. If you or someone you love is addicted to heroin, it’s important to seek professional help. Some people think they can quit heroin and detox at home with their families or even alone.

However, this can be extremely dangerous. It is highly recommended that anyone who is addicted to heroin enter a medical detoxification program.


Heroin detox is the process by which the body rids itself of toxins related to the drug. By checking into a treatment facility, the individual can be monitored during the withdrawal process and given medication to relieve their symptoms if necessary.

Common withdrawal symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting, and pain. 

Since people who are coming off of heroin also experience mental and emotional challenges, psychological support may also be provided. Without help from addiction specialists, people usually find it very difficult to continue the detox process.

Not only does withdrawal cause negative side effects but the individual experiences strong cravings for heroin.

Inpatient Treatment

Detox sets the stage for the next phase of recovery. It gives the individual a clear head so they can get to the bottom of their addiction and learn how to stay sober. People who undergo residential or inpatient treatment usually reap the most success.

This type of intensive treatment can last for weeks or months depending on the individual’s needs. During this time, they benefit from individual therapy, group therapy, and other interventions that help them prepare for their return to their home and community.


People who are recovering from addiction require long-term support. Aftercare can take several forms. Some people move into sober living homes or halfway houses to make the transition from rehab smoother.

Others go back to their residence but continue individual therapy or join support groups. There are also rehab alumni programs that keep former patients and counselors in contact with each other.

Treatment Approaches for Substance Abuse Disorders

Treatment Approaches for Substance Abuse Disorders

Substance abuse is a chronic disease and it can, therefore, be treated even though it can’t be cured. There are multiple treatments available for people who are addicted to heroin including medications and behavioral interventions.

While addiction can cause some permanent changes to the way the brain functions, treatment can create some sense of normalcy. This allows the individual to get and maintain a job, reduce their risk of contracting HIV and other diseases, and stay out of trouble with the law.

While behavioral and pharmacological approaches can be effective on their own, many people benefit from a combination of the two.


The medications used to treat heroin addiction act on the same opioid receptors as heroin does. However, they are safer and less likely to lead to a substance use disorder. There are three types of medications in use. 

The first is Methadone which is an opioid agonist. Methadone, also marketed as Dolophine or Methadose, is taken orally.

It reaches the brain slowly and therefore, while it activates the opioid receptors, it does so more slowly than other opioids and doesn’t result in euphoria. Methadone also helps to reduce withdrawal symptoms. It has been in use since the 1960s.

Another commonly used medication is buprenorphine which is a partial opioid agonist. Partial opioid agonists activate the opioid receptors but produce a weakened response.

When a person takes buprenorphine, they get relief from their heroin cravings but they don’t experience psychoactive effects or dangerous side effects like those provided by other opioids.

Buprenorphine is also combined with the opioid antagonist naloxone to create Suboxone which prevents painful withdrawal symptoms.

The third medication that can be used to treat heroin addiction is Naltrexone or Vivitrol. This medication is an opioid antagonist and it blocks the opioid receptors to make opioids less rewarding. Naltrexone suppresses cravings but it is not sedating or addictive.

The medication an individual gets is based on their specific needs.

Behavioral Therapies

Behavioral treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and contingency management can be delivered in both residential and outpatient settings. Contingency management allows patients to earn “points” when they return negative drug tests.

They then get a voucher which they can exchange for some type of reward. Meanwhile, cognitive-behavioral therapy helps people recovering from addiction to modify their behaviors and improve their ability to manage stressors.

Other interventions include Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT), motivational interviewing, and psychodrama therapy. 

Get Heroin Addiction Treatment from the Discovery House 

If you’re struggling to control your heroin use, you need to enroll in treatment as soon as possible. There are several drug treatment programs out there but they’re not all the same.

You, therefore, need to choose the program that best suits your needs and preferences. At The Discovery House in Southern California, we treat each person as an individual because we know that each client is different. 

What is effective for one person may not work for another. That’s why everyone entering our drug treatment programs is evaluated by a program director and in some cases, assessed by clinical staff. This helps us to come up with a comprehensive treatment plan that factors in all their underlying issues.

We believe that recovery needs to be focused on the entire individual so we seek to treat mind, body, and spirit. Without a holistic approach, relapse is more likely since some aspects of the individual’s life will be out of balance.

Our therapists use a variety of treatment methods including music therapy, yoga, mindfulness therapy, anger management therapy, and stress reduction techniques. The goal is to help the client live a healthy life that doesn’t involve the use of heroin or other addictive substances.

At The Discovery House, we also treat co-occurring disorders. Many people who are addicted to substances also struggle with anxiety, depression, personality disorders, mood disorders, and other challenges. In order for addiction treatment to be successful, other mental health conditions need to be treated at the same time.

Now that you know the history of heroin, how dangerous it is, and how important it is to get professional treatment, you may be ready to take the next step. We accept several forms of insurance so contact us today to learn how you can get started on your recovery journey.