The History of Legal Heroin

The subject of heroin is one about which few people seem to have a neutral opinion. There are many reasons for this and it is not difficult to find any number of examples as to why. What is not a matter of opinion, however, is the fact that heroin is illegal to sell, possess, or prescribe in the United States and in most other industrialized nations in the world. Conversely, it is also a matter of fact that heroin was at one time perfectly legal in the United States. Because I am not entirely familiar with the specific circumstances surrounding the legalization and subsequent outlawing of heroin in other countries, I will primarily confine my discussion to the brief but powerful stint of legal heroin in the United States.

As we are all aware, heroin is a derivative of morphine, which is in turn a derivative of opium. Morphine rose to prominence on the North American continent during the American Civil War as a general anesthetic used during operations (usually amputations) on wounded soldiers on both sides of the battlefield. After the war, this inadvertently created a new class of morphine addicts. In or around 1874, an English chemist by the name of C.R. Wright mixed morphine and acetic anhydride together and then boiled the solution. Wright called the compound diacetylmorphine, and most estimates placed its potency as being around 10 times that of regular morphine. Initial tests apparently determined that diacetylmorphine lacked the addictive qualities of its less potent forebearer.

In the late 1890s, a man by the name of Heinrich Dreser working for the German pharmaceutical company Bayer decided that diacetylmorphine would be a medical -- and perhaps more importantly, commercial -- success and began synthesizing it. Some of Bayer's early test subjects described the feeling that diacetylmorphine gave them as having an "heroic" quality*. Dreser therefore recommended that diacetylmorphine be marketed under the brand name Heroin. Dreser was a very important figure at Bayer, and his word was the law. Dreser determined what got made and what didn't and it was a very rare occurrence indeed when he did not get his way. In addition to getting his way about the production of Heroin, it was around this time that he also got his way in the rejection of another drug submitted to him. The drug he dismissed as having "no value" was a compound known as acetylsalicylic acid. Generally speaking, we now call this compound aspirin.

Herr Dreser now had a problem: he knew that heroin did something, but what exactly did it do? Among other things, heroin depresses respiration and sedates the user. Dreser was a shrewd salesman above all else and realized that these two properties made heroin an effective and attractive cough suppressant. Bayer therefore began an aggressive marketing campaign in Europe and in the United States to sell physicians and other manufacturers on the wonders of heroin, particularly in the context of the battle against diseases like tuberculosis.

It worked.

The medical community in America was almost immediately taken with heroin and it soon became an incredibly popular additive to many types of drugs. Although it was most commonly used for its stated purpose (a cough suppressant), it was also used as a method for curing morphine addiction, especially among Civil War veterans. After all, it was a scientifically-proven fact that heroin was not possessed of any addictive qualities and that it was therefore superior to morphine. Predictably, it did not take long for many of these morphine addicts to become heroin addicts. Somewhat more predictably, people who had hitherto never been addicted to anything became addicted to heroin by using certain types of lozenges and cough syrups. As you can probably imagine, this did not bode well for heroin's future as a legitimate drug and it certainly did not bode well for Bayer as a commercial entity or more specifically for Heinrich Dreser. Or so it would seem.

In addition to being a shrewd salesman, Herr Dreser was also a smart gambler. You see, the reason he gave for initially rejecting acetylsalicylic acid -- that it had the potential to weaken the heart and that it was without medical merit -- was not really the truth. The real reason Dreser rejected ASA had to do with his concern that promoting it might have had the unforseen effect of forcing heroin -- his pet project -- to compete with aspirin. After heroin became relatively well-established, Dreser authorized the production and subsequent marketing of aspirin. And then, after it became obvious that heroin was causing more problems than it was solving and in light of the hostility that medical experts in the United States and Europe were beginning to develop towards heroin, Dreser had Bayer refocus its marketing prowess behind aspirin.

In 1906, the American Medical Association released a report that reaffirmed heroin's status as an acceptable medical drug, but noted rather belatedly for the first time that heroin had the potential to be addicting. Seven years later, with aspirin doing extremely well and more than making up for lagging heroin sales, Bayer ended its production of heroin. In 1914, heroin was banned in the United States without a prescription. In 1919, it was made illegal for doctors to prescribe heroin to those addicted to it. In 1924, the production, sale, possession, and prescription of heroin was outlawed altogether. Many countries had already done this before 1924 and most of those that hadn't did so not too long afterwards. Somewhat coincidentally, 1924 is also the year in which the obscenely wealthy Heinrich Dreser died from a stroke.

*: ; ;