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Poppy Fields Forever: The Dark History of Heroin

The ancient and recent history of heroin, the sweetest—and deadliest—narcotic

Heroin (and morphine, Oxycontin, Vicodin and the other real or synthetic opiates) all start with the juice of the poppy. Archaeological evidence hints that the Neanderthals might have “used” the poppy 30,000 years ago, and we’re certain its woozy pleasures had dawned on the Sumerians by 3400 BCE, because they named it Hul Gil, “plant of joy.” Cultivated in Mesopotamia and traded by Egyptians, the poppy made its way through Persia to Greece. Remember The Odyssey? Homer tells us Telemachus is saddened by his failure to find his father, Odysseus—until Helen  

"...had a happy thought. Into the bowl in which their wine was mixed, she slipped a drug that had the power of robbing grief and anger of their sting and banishing all painful memories. No one who swallowed this dissolved in their wine could shed a single tear that day..."

Arab traders introduced the poppy to China, and in 1527 Europe, Paracelsus wrote about the medicinal miracles of “laudanum,” which well-born ladies would soon be gulping to settle their nerves. By 1606, Queen Elizabeth I was chartering ships with a mandate to purchase the finest Indian opium and bring it back to England.

In 1803, a German scientist named Friedrich Sertuerner figured out the poppy juice’s active ingredient by dissolving opium in acid and then neutralizing it with ammonia. He was left with a new substance: morphine, which he named for Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. Opium had been calmed into “God’s own medicine,” doctors believed, and it would bring safe, long-lasting pain relief.

In 1816, John Jacob Astor joined the opium smuggling trade, buying 10 tons of the stuff. Soon the British were waging the Opium Wars in China, investing in its opium production even as China was trying to curb it. Then, in 1874, C.R. Wright boiled morphine and acetic anhydride over a stove and synthesized diacetylmorphine. It was far more potent than morphine—and nobody touched it until 1895, when Bayer tested it on workers and named it “heroin” because it made them feel heroic.

Blithely announcing that heroin was not addictive, Bayer sold it as a cough suppressant for 12 years. The philanthropic St. James Society mailed free samples of heroin to morphine addicts. Then scientists learned that heroin rapidly metabolizes into morphine.

By the early 1900s, addicts could be found in the darkest alleys of any large city. “What little literature has appeared on the subject has usually pictured them as weak-minded, deteriorated wretches, mental and moral derelicts…so depraved that their rescue was impossible,” wrote Ernest Bishop (“The Narcotic Drug Problem,” 1920).

Yet heroin became part of hipster culture, figuring in the Harlem jazz scene and then the Beatnik subculture. At mid-century, the “French connection” (Corsican gangsters in Marseille) brought heroin into the U.S. During the Vietnam War, the source moved to the Golden Triangle (Burma, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand). After Saigon fell, dealers looked south of our borders and found “Mexican mud” to replace “China White.” After the U.S. and Mexican governments sprayed Mexican poppy fields with Agent Orange, a new source emerged in the Golden Crescent (Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan).

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Colombia introduced a higher-grade heroin that could be smoked or snorted, and “heroin chic” hit the runway. Seattle grunge and celebrity deaths followed.
Cocaine then took heroin’s place—until 2006. Now Mexican heroin is back, but purer. The 3 percent heroin of the Vietnam days has given way to heroin as pure as 80 percent. The new epidemic’s the deadliest yet.

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