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eroin is known as the worst drug on this planet for how addictive as well as damaging it is. However, back in the late 19th century, heroin was seen as harmless and useful as paracetamol or other common medicines that can cure a cough. In the 19th century, the use of drugs for their euphoric effect was uncommon, whoever wanted to have a “good time” would turn to alcohol as it was cheaper and had a better taste than medicine.

Creation of synthetic drugs

Synthetic drugs were something new because at the beginning of the century they were made from natural ingredients such as opium or poppy juice. The German pharmacist Friedrich Sertürner was the first to apply chemical procedures to herbal drugs, purifying the main opium ingredient in 1805. He baptized the new morphine substance and was nominated for academic distinctions by Goethe himself. The possibility of obtaining herbal drugs has brought enormous satisfaction to entrepreneurs such as Georg Merck, who turned his pharmacy in Darmstadt into a major supplier of such products.

Friedrich Bayer founder of the Bayer company (Source: Bayer Archive)

The scientific interest in the effects of drugs has also increased. In 1863, a German merchant named Friedrich Bayer founded a factory in Elberfeld to explore new chemical procedures to obtain colored hues from coal tar. The tar paint industry developed rapidly until 1875. But then there was a crisis of prices and raw materials, so the Bayer brand began to invest in research to diversify the products. In 1888, a new substance synthesized in the laboratories became the first drug to be marketed by the company.

In Strasbourg, a well-equipped institute for pharmacologist Oswald Schmeideberg was founded in 1872, whose student Heinrich Dreser became the head of the laboratory at Bayer in Elberfeld. Now that herbal drugs were available in purified forms, chemists could modify them to create new, more efficient molecules. By 1890, Dreser adopted this strategy to produce one of the most famous drugs, heroin. Heroin, obtained by adding two acetyls to the morphine molecule, was followed by another acetyl derivative, acetylsalicylic acid, in other words, the modern-day aspirin.

Ironically, the heroine took its name from the word heroic, an adjective used at the time and to describe a very powerful drug. Dreser presented the drug at the 1898 Congress of Physicians and Naturalists as effective against respiratory diseases.At that time, pneumonia and tuberculosis were the main fatal diseases, and because of the lack of antibiotics or vaccines, doctors could only prescribe narcotics to ease the pain. Therefore, there is an increased interest in the new drug. Heroin is a stronger analgesic than morphine because it reaches the brain faster. It was prescribed instead of morphine or codeine, patient studies (for example at the University Clinic in Berlin) showed that it improved coughing more and had a stronger sleeping effect.

Negative side effects

However, it was also found that patients continued to want the medicine after the end of the treatment period. Addiction was more acute than that for morphine and in addition, for heroin to continue to be effective, the doses had to be increased. What’s even more interesting is that some doctors like Morel Lavalle were proposing heroin treatment to get rid of morphine addiction … Withdrawal symptoms in the case of heroin outweighed the others. Although in an article in the Alabama Medical Journal in 1903, G. Pettey confirmed from his own cases that heroin was addictive, many doctors refused to give up prescribing it. In fact, it became a very serious problem in the States, as in Germany or the UK there were pharmaceutical regulations for controlling dangerous drugs.

Bayer advert for Aspirin from 1898 (Source: Bayer Archive)

In contrast, in the States drugs could be obtained in areas with looser laws, without prescription. In addition, there were all kinds of other drugs that could contain substances, so it is estimated that around 250,000 Americans had developed an addiction to opium, morphine or cocaine. Finally, a federal act, the Pure Food and Drug Act, in 1906, was issued, requiring manufacturers to accurately describe the contents of drugs, including syrups or cures for chronic diseases that have never been labeled or even denied drugs. The products either fell in popularity, or eliminated harmful substances from the composition, as happened with Coca Cola. The release of aspirin in 1899 as a substitute for opium also improved the situation.

the Pure Food and Drug Act 0f 1906 (Source: Bayer Archive)

In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Harrison Narcotic Act, which allowed federal regulation of pharmaceutical transactions involving opium or cocaine derivatives. The main impetus for national drug laws was a diplomatic one. China, the rising economic power with which America wanted favorable relations, had major problems with opium, leading to an international campaign to stop the phenomenon, culminating in the 1912 Hague Opium Convention, which required signatories to legislate control over trade with opium.

The birth of drug users and dealers

Most heroin addicts appeared to be in New York, given the density of pharmaceutical companies. In 1910 the first patient was admitted to Bellevue Hospital because of addiction. By 1915 the number had already increased to 425, most of them being members of neighborhood gangs, between the ages of 17 and 25, who inhaled the substance.

After 1919, drug users were almost completely dependent on the black market, the prescription of narcotics being taken out of the law. Heroin fell within the purview of dealers, who took advantage of its powerful effects and the possibility to change it. At the same time, the addicts discovered an increased euphoria if they injected their substance with hypodermic syringes.

A New York opium den offering dealing heroin illegally 1920s (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In New York in the 1920s, many people kept collecting metal waste from industrial pits, calling it ‘junkies’. The authorities were worried about the antisocial behaviors generated by the consumption, in 1,922,260 crimes committed on the basis of substance abuse took place. In 1924 Congress banned domestic heroin addiction. Two years later, narcotics inspector S. Rakusin claimed that it had spread more than ever.

Organized crime was obtained from legitimate western producers first, then from Turkey and Bulgaria. However, the restrictive policies of the League of Nations pushed the business underground, with the exception of Japan and its territories, where pharmaceutical companies were producing it on a large scale for Chinese markets. After World War II, however, the drug permanently moved to the realm of organized crime.

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