22 April 2012

Heroin, Morphine, and Opium

Opium: A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon by Barbara Hodgson, 1999, Excerpts

Heroin, a semi-synthetic substance derived from morphine by simple structural modification, was first created in the 1870s, shelved, and then rediscovered in 1898 by Heinrich Dresser, a chemist for the Bayer Company of Germany. Heroin was initially marketed as a remedy for tuberculosis, laryngitis and coughs. It was also, ironically, touted as a potential cure for morphine addiction.

Morphine, which had been introduced into China in the late nineteenth century, was at first lauded by missionaries and addicts alike as a potential cure for the opium smoking habit. Pills containing opium or morphine were handed out by missionaries with such regularity that they were called “Jesus Opium.” Morphine cures for the opium habit were sold in North America as well, advertised in newspapers and magazines. However, the wording of both ads and packaging seldom mentioned the nature of the ingredients.

By the 1920s, widespread adoption of anti-opium and anti-drug legislation put opium out of reach of the ordinary person. No longer available without a prescription, opium and morphine became forbidden stuff, and as such the center of an emerging criminal class and the streetwise drug pusher. Violence, gang warfare and smuggling escalated on an international scale, and, in spite of government and individual efforts to find solutions, little has changed; these problems are still with us.

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