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The opium poppy, the plant from which heroin was developed, began to spread from the Sumerian civilization as early as 700 B.C. Opium spread throughout the ancient world via trade routes, and was first popularly documented in Greece, where opium was prescribed to people as a form of insomnia treatment. De Materia Medica, a medical text written in the first century A.D., heralded opium as a cure for insomnia, diarrhea, and nausea.

Heroin was first synthesized from an opium derivative, morphine, in 1874, and began widespread distribution as a “wonder drug”. It was initially used for a range of treatments, such as an analgesic, cough suppressant, and anti-diarrheal medicine, as well as a morphine substitute. In 1914, The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act was passed, making it legal to prescribe and distribute it for medical purposes, but just 10 years later was banned from sale or manufacture by Congressional Act. Heroin is currently a Schedule 1 Compound under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning it has high abuse potential, has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and cannot be safely used even under medical supervision.

In the 1990s, heroin abuse declined in the U.S., presumably due in part to increased experimentation with club drugs and prescription medication. However, it did not take long for people who were addicted to prescription painkillers to figure out that heroin was easier to obtain and cheaper than prescription drugs, and from 2002-2013, heroin use increased by 63% in the United States (Sifferlin, 2015). Massive increases in heroin-related deaths, particularly in Maryland and Virginia, have garnered nationwide attention, and is currently at the forefront of legislative debate.

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  • Sifferlin, A. (2015, July 7). Heroin Use in U.S. Reaches Epidemic Levels. Time.