When Britain Was A Drug Gang and Pharmacies Made Heroin

October 27, 2014
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When Britain Was A Drug Gang and Pharmacies Made Heroin

In Part Two of our series A Selective History of Hard Drugs, Henry Vespa turns his attention to that old classic opium and its insane cousin heroin…

So, apparently the US is in the middle of a heroin revival. The latest figures bandied about in the press and in Congress reckon the number of first-time users has risen by 60% in the last 10 years. Coke and meth are down but horse is up. Why is that?

First, a little history lesson; guaranteed to be more interesting than the ones you had in school, unless you’re OCD, in which case you probably enjoyed the dates. Let’s start with the source: opium, the pretty poppy flower. Opium is practically a pre-Christ wonder drug, dating back to around 3,400 BC (Christ may be relatively unconnected to drug use but Christians aren’t – more on that later…) The Sumerians called it Hul Gil, which means “joy plant”; an early example of accurate labeling. Lacking aspirin, those ancient peoples mainly used the poppy juice for pain relief. As Thomas Sydenham (17th century doctor and creator of the standard formula for laudanum) said, “Among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium.” (Incidentally, if you want to know the recipe, it’s 2oz opium; 1oz saffron; a dram of cinnamon and cloves; and a pint of Canary wine – L’chaim!). Of course, some did overuse it and become dependent (just like prescription painkillers these days) and after a while, people began to latch on to the fact that there’s money to be made out of addicts.

Probably the biggest drugs operation of the last few hundred years was the British Empire (now thankfully deceased) besides which those pesky Colombian cartels pale into insignificance. The Opium Wars of the 1800s were all due to the Chinese Emperor having the temerity to ban opium for recreational use. This threatened the Brits’ profits so they called in the Royal Navy to force the Chinese to accept their drug trade. That’s a simplification but it’s essentially true. Oh, and they did it twice. That’s two wars fought for Britain’s right to deal drugs. Nice.

Meanwhile, those busy little Europeans had decided that opium addiction was becoming too widespread (apparently it was okay for the Chinese but not so much at home) and they went looking for a cure for habitual opium use. The problem was the depression and flu-like symptoms that came with withdrawal. The solution: chemically alter opium into a more powerful version of itself and take that instead. Thus was morphine born in 1805 at the hands of German pharmacist, Wilhelm Sertürner. And yes, morphine really was given to opium addicts as a cure (in China, so many morphine pills were handed out by Christian missionaries that they became known as “Jesus Opium”). You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Eventually, doctors started to notice that morphine was just a tiny bit habit-forming (in the same way as throwing yourself into the bus lane is a tiny bit bad for your health) and those altruistic pharmacists (noble souls all) began to search for a new, non-addictive painkiller. Once again, they came up with an opium derivative; which is like trying to get out of the same hole by digging it deeper. Diacetylmorphine (made by boiling morphine and acetic acid) was synthesised and launched by the German drug company Bayer in 1898 under the brand name, Heroin. They saturated the market with free samples and everyone was happy for a while. Finally, the medical profession realised that perhaps patients were a little bit too happy on the new wonder-drug and began to ask questions. By the time of the First World War, Bayer had stopped making heroin and focused on their other best-selling drug, Aspirin. (Funnily enough, if you go to the Bayer website, they seem to have written heroin out of their official history altogether.)

So, to recap, for most of the last five and a half thousand years, opium has been a pretty useful medicine. Then western doctors and drug companies got involved and proceeded to mess about with it, making it more powerful and more addictive, pushing it onto as many people as possible via the medical fraternity and then, when it became a problem, they manufactured a new variation while throwing up their hands in horror and rewriting history so they had nothing to do with it. That’s pretty tacky behaviour. But for some reason, the drug companies and pharmacists are all still in business. They’re still making opium-derived addictive painkillers (OxyContin, Vicodin, etc.) and, by the way, the belief is that these still-legal drugs are acting as a gateway to heroin use, accounting for the increase in the statistics mentioned earlier. Meanwhile, all the disgust generated by society’s ‘drug problem’ seems to be directed at the addicts themselves or the people who sell drugs without a legal licence. Why is that? A large part of the answer lies with the activities of two influential organizations in US history: the Christian church, and the Drug Enforcement Agency, or DEA…

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  1. Good read. Heroin is an evil drug. Crazy how it was sold by Bayer.

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