Menu Close

A Brief History of Heroin Addiction

Providing Trusted, Evidence-Based
Treatment for Three Decades and Counting

If you or a loved one is experiencing addiction, we’re here to help.

How has heroin addiction become the problem it is today? Where did the drug come from, and why has is spread so far from its roots? This brief history of heroin addiction can help you better understand the drug and why you or a loved one may struggle with abuse or addiction.

Heroin’s Origins

Opium poppiesHeroin’s origins lie in opium. Opium has been around for centuries, even millennia. It’s been used in medical settings and, of course, for its euphoric and recreational properties. The Atlantic reports that in 1803 scientists discovered, and then learned to refine, morphine.1 Morphine is opium’s active ingredient. Shortly after this refinement process was found and perfected, companies began to market and sell the drug for everything ranging from bronchitis and tuberculosis to, “diarrhea, insomnia, psychosis, pneumonia [and] alcoholism.” Opiates were becoming big business.

After the successful making and marketing of morphine came the discovery of heroin. The U.S. National Library of Medicine says: “Heroin, in pharmacological studies, proved to be more effective than morphine or codeine. The Bayer Company started the production of heroin in 1898 on a commercial scale.”2 Dependence and addiction were discovered soon after, but heroin wasn’t banned from medical use until the 1920s. Once medical production ceased, smuggling began. People could no longer get the drug legally, so they looked to other sources and other countries. Heroin was no longer a cure-all. Scientists, medical professionals and politicians were beginning to realize this drug was causing more problems than it was solving. They were beginning to acknowledge addiction and its scope and reach, but they didn’t understand the science behind it.

The Science Behind Heroin Addiction

Addictions and addicts have always been surrounded by stigma and misunderstanding. Part of this is because heroin addiction first became a serious concern in the 1920s — but scientists didn’t discover opioid receptors until the 1970s. And even then they were poorly understood. Now we know how and why drugs like heroin work. We understand the chemical properties of these drugs, and we understand that addiction is also so much more than these properties. Addiction is a combination of chemical, social, biological, emotional and environmental factors.

Heroin may no longer be legally available, but many of its counterparts are. Codeine has been used since the early 1900s. We now have oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl and more. Although the medical community has a much better understanding of how these drugs function and the risks involved in their use, they are still widely prescribed. When people can’t access these substances because they do not have a prescription, use more than their prescription or are looking for cheaper alternatives, they may turn to heroin.

This is part of the reason why we’ve seen a recent spike in heroin addiction, along with a tragic spike in heroin overdose. The Washington Post explains, “21st-century dope — especially heroin spiked with synthetic opioids like fentanyl — is more addictive than anything before, according to narcotics experts. The highs are higher, as are the risks of lethal overdose.”3 Heroin addiction is a growing, changing problem. It isn’t a problem that will go away on its own.

What Are We Doing About Heroin Addiction?

Advances in the science behind addiction mean accompanying advances in treating addiction. Public opinions about addiction are slow to change, but they are changing. We now know addiction can be defeated. However it is a real, medical disease, so overcoming it requires real, professional attention. Reach out to Michael’s House to learn more about what you can do about your or a loved one’s drug use struggles. We understand heroin addiction, and we understand how it can impact your life. We offer professional, evidence-based care to make heroin a part of your history, not your future.


1 Jenkins, P. Nash. “Heroin Addiction’s Fraught History.” The Atlantic. 24 Feb. 2014.

2 Hosztafi, S. “The History of Heroin.” U.S. Library of Medicine. Aug. 2001.

3 Miroff, Nick. “From Teddy Roosevelt to Trump: How Drug Companies Triggered an Opioid Crisis a Century Ago.” Washington Post. 17 Oct. 2017.