Heroin, morphine, and other opiates trace their origins to a single plant—the opium poppy. Cultivation of the plant dates back to the earliest years of human civilization, and opium use was well known in ancient Mesopotamia. The narcotic drug has been used both recreationally and as a medicine for centuries. Opium derivatives, including morphine, became widely used pain relievers, particularly in the 1800s. Heroin, too, was first synthesized for medical use before physicians realized its potent addictive properties.

What Is Opium?

Opium comes from the milky sap of a flower called the opium poppy. The earliest reference to opium use and the cultivation of opium poppies comes from Mesopotamia around 3,400 B.C.

The ancient Sumerians—who inhabited the southernmost region of Mesopotamia in modern-day Iraq and Kuwait—referred to the bright red poppy flowers as hul gil, “the joy plant.”

Opium cultivation spread to the ancient Greeks, Persians and Egyptians. Opium use in ancient Egypt flourished under the reign of King Tutankhamen, around 1333-1324 B.C., and the Greek author Homer referred to opium’s healing powers in the Odyssey.

These ancient societies used opium to help people sleep, to relieve pain and even to calm crying children. There is also some evidence that opium-based medicines were used as anesthesia during surgery. They may also have used the drug recreationally, though they probably weren’t aware of its addictive effects.

Opium was likely introduced to China and East Asia in the sixth or seventh century A.D. through trade along the Silk Road, which connected the Mediterranean cultures of Europe to central Asia, India and China. The region stretching from Afghanistan and Pakistan eastward into India, Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand still produces much of the world’s opium poppies.

The First Opium War

In the 1700s, the British empire conquered a major poppy-growing region of India and, rather than quash the production of opium, began to smuggle opium from India into China through the East India Company.

Great Britain used the profits from the lucrative opium trade to buy and export tea, silk, porcelain and other Chinese luxury goods back to Europe. As a result of this trade, opium addiction in China rose steeply. The Qing Dynasty, attempting to curb the havoc caused by widespread opium addiction, outlawed opium importation and cultivation.

Two armed conflicts, called the Opium Wars, followed China’s attempts to suppress opium use within its borders, and British efforts to keep opium trafficking routes open. In each case, the Chinese lost, and European powers gained commercial privileges and land concessions from China.

During the First Opium War (1839-1842), the British government resorted to “gunboat diplomacy” to force the Chinese government to keep the ports in Shanghai, Canton and elsewhere open to trade. China ceded Hong Kong to the British in the Treaty of Nanking following the First Opium War.

The Second Opium War

During the Second Opium War (1856-1860), the British and French joined forces against China to make the opium trade legal in China, and to extract further concessions (including the right to own property) from the Chinese emperor’s family.

Despite the European success in opening China to trade, many in Europe, China and elsewhere considered the Opium Wars—and the resulting spread of opium addiction—a villainous and immoral use of military power.

In the British Parliament, William Ewart Gladstone denounced the First Opium War as “a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with permanent disgrace.” Gladstone’s younger sister Helen, it should be noted, suffered from opium addiction.

China’s losses in the Opium Wars ushered in what was known in China as the “Century of Humiliation,” which ended with the Japanese defeat in World War II and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Opium Dens

Thousands of Chinese came to America to work on railroads and in the California gold fields during the 1849 Gold Rush. They brought with them the habit of opium smoking.

Chinese immigrants soon established opium dens—places to buy, sell and smoke opium—in so-called Chinatowns throughout the West. By the 1870s, opium smoking had become a popular habit for many Americans, and in 1875, San Francisco became the first city to pass legislation trying to limit opium use. The ordinance made it a misdemeanor to maintain or frequent an opium den.

Some people believed that opium smoking would encourage prostitution and other crimes. These concerns, and fears of unemployment among white Americans, fed into an anti-Chinese campaign that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—a 10-year moratorium on Chinese immigration.

Types of Opiates

German scientist Friedrich Sertürner first isolated morphine from opium in 1803. Morphine, a very powerful painkiller, is the active narcotic ingredient in opium.

In its pure form, morphine is ten times stronger than opium. The drug was widely used as a painkiller during the U.S. Civil War. As a result, an estimated 400,000 soldiers became addicted.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, scientists had begun to look for a less addictive form of morphine, and in 1874, an English chemist named Alder Wright first refined heroin from a morphine base. The drug was intended to be a safer replacement for morphine.

Morphine is still the precursor to all other opioids, including prescription narcotic painkillers such as codeine, fentanyl, methadone, hydrocodone (Vicodin), hydromorphone (Dilaudid), meperidine (Demerol) and oxycodone (Percocet or Oxycontin).

Medical Uses of Heroin

Before it became a popular recreational drug, heroin was used in medicine until its addictive properties became known.

In the 1890s, German pharmaceutical company Bayer marketed heroin as a morphine substitute and cough suppressant. Bayer promoted heroin for use in children suffering from coughs and colds.

Partly as a result of these medical treatments, by the early 1900s, heroin addiction in the United States and western Europe had skyrocketed.

Black Tar Heroin

Black tar heroin is a form of heroin that is dark orange or brown. It can be sticky and tar-like or hard like coal.

Since the mid-1990s, black tar heroin has been the main type of heroin available west of the Mississippi River. The traditional white powder form dominates the eastern half of the United States.

Black tar heroin typically comes from Mexico, while powder heroin is often imported into the United States from Colombia.

Harrison Narcotics Tax Act

The use of opium had reached such levels in the United States that in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Dr. Hamilton Wright as Opium Commissioner of the United States.

In The New York Times in 1911, Wright was quoted as saying, “Of all the nations of the world, the United States consumes most habit-forming drugs per capita. Opium, the most pernicious drug known to humanity, is surrounded, in this country, with far fewer safeguards than any other nation in Europe fences it with. China now guards it with much greater care than we do; Japan preserves her people from it far more intelligently than we do ours, who can buy it, in almost any form, in every tenth one of our drug stores.”

In response, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914—the first major piece of U.S. legislation to control the sale and use of opiates—was passed. The act passed restrictions on the distribution and sale of heroin and opium, as well as cocaine.

Ten years later, Congress made it illegal to make, import or sell heroin when it passed the Anti-Heroin Act of 1924.

Opiate Addiction and Withdrawal

All opiates, including heroin, morphine and narcotic pain relievers, can cause physical dependence, forcing users to rely on bigger and bigger hits of the drug to prevent withdrawal symptoms. Addiction can have devastating consequences for addicts, their communities and society as a whole.

An estimated 26 million to 36 million people worldwide abuse opiates, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In the United States, an estimated 2.1 million people abuse prescription opiate pain relievers, and about 467,000 Americans are addicted to heroin.

In recent years, the rates of opiate addiction and opiate-related deaths have risen sharply: In just one year—from 2014 to 2015—the death rate from synthetic opioids increased by 72 percent, and heroin death rates increased by almost 21 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This upsurge in opiate abuse has caused many officials to view the problem as an epidemic in need of a broad range of solutions to curb abuse and overturn the profound effects of opiate addiction.