Heroin Addiction's Fraught History

The United States has long condemned opiates and stigmatized those who use them, even when the drugs were as legal—and popular—as Tylenol.
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Bayer heroin bottle (Mpv_51/Wikimedia)

Though the first autopsy proved inconclusive, let’s assume that Philip Seymour Hoffman did in fact die from a lethal heroin overdose. Let’s choose to believe that even the most overwrought of his epitaphs get one thing right: that one of the greatest actors of his generation had demons, and that self-medication shut them up.

It’s a compelling narrative, though not an especially new one. Maybe there’s a quiet edge of schadenfreude to the expectation that our geniuses be haunted: would we view the canons of Joplin, Morrison, and Belushi with the same awe and appreciation if we hadn’t been led to believe that that which killed them—heroin, those three and so many others—was a necessary weapon against the wellspring of inner tragedy or whatnot that had made their art so palatable in the first place?

“Nobody will laugh long who deals much with opium,” Thomas De Quincey writes in his 1821 Confessions of an Opium-Eater, “Its pleasures even are of a grave and solemn complexion.” Confessions is De Quincey’s autobiographical account of his addiction to laudanum, a particularly potent narcotic derived, like the powder found in the bags strewn across Hoffman’s Greenwich Village office-cum-personal-apartment-cum-presumed-escape-den, from the flower of the opium poppy.

Grave and solemn—sounds familiar. It makes a lot of sense that De Quincey’s Wikipedia page links to another on “the effects of opium on literary creation,” since, as the first English writer to really speak candidly about addiction, he ratified both the theme of addiction in Western literature—would we have Naked Lunch or Infinite Jest without it?—and the notion that maybe, there’s some connection between a reality altered by intoxication and a reality vivified in art. It should be said that De Quincey’s manuscripts were often submitted riddled with brown stains—laudanum is similar in color to rust—and that his literary output dwindled to near-nothing during periods of sobriety.

We needn’t delve too far into ancient history here, but it’s important to note that, with the exception of alcohol, opiate dependency is “humanity’s oldest, most widespread, and most persistent drug problem,” according to a 2004 Harvard Medical School report. The doctors of virtually every ancient culture we learned about in ninth grade relied on the plant whose Latin botanical name, papaver somniferum, means “sleep-bringing poppy.” Ana María Rosso, a historian at the University of Buenos Aires, ventures that ancient Egyptian illustrations of Tutankhamun’s death, typically depicting King Tut splayed in “voluptuous and odd gestures,” aren’t portraying the victim of some foreign plague, as the record typically has it. Maybe, Rosso says, he was high on opium.

By 1895, when the United Kingdom’s Royal Commission on Opium published its scrutiny of the supposed vices encouraged by the opium trade, De Quincey had been dead for more than four decades. Between the seminal toothache at 19 and his death at 74, English author Alethea Hayter tells us in a 1968 report, he hadn’t been sober for a period longer than 61 days.

Not that he was alone. Ever since the Swiss-German physician Paracelsus had brewed up in the 1500s after a sojourn in the East, the medical potential of the poppy held Western medicine’s attention. Opiates were prescribed for insomnia, pain, and gastrointestinal issues in England by the 17th century; by the beginning of the 19th, they were recognized as a universal cure-all.

The discovery of morphine—opium’s active ingredient—by German chemists in 1803 precipitated this. By dissolving opium in acid and then neutralizing it with ammonia, they had finally perfected it. The elusive narcotic became, as Dr. William Osler is said to have called it, God’s own medicine. Merck began to commercially manufacture morphine in 1827; three years later, Britain was importing 22,000 pounds of opium from India and Turkey.

Bayer advertised liquid heroin as the best cure for your child’s bronchitis. At a time when tuberculosis was responsible for 1 in 4 of all deaths , heroin was said to ensure an immaculate bill of respiratory health. Meanwhile its relatives—morphine, codeine, and the rest—were among the primary “treatments” for several conspicuously incompatible ailments: diarrhea, insomnia, psychosis, pneumonia, alcoholism. A report from Hazelden, the Minnesota rehab center, tells us about a certain opiate-based Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, which seems to have been about as prevalent in a family’s medicine cabinet as, say, DayQuil is today.

We’re left to wonder how honest the patients of this line of treatment were with themselves. With opiates came opiate dependence: Those who used these drugs swore by them, and those who didn’t eyed those that did with increasing sanctimony. As commonplace as they were, opiates were always a drug especially reserved for those who were somehow more afflicted than the rest.

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P. Nash Jenkins is a Baltimore-based writer and holds a Louis Azrael Fellowship in Communications at Johns Hopkins University.

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