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.

It was what “beggar-women” fed their teething or ill babies, Harper’s Weekly reported in the late 1850s. An illustration in the magazine captioned “Opium—The Poor Child’s Nurse” depicts a frail infant hanging limply over the side of his bassinet, which is situated in the middle of what looks like a washerwoman’s house. It calls to mind the Gin Lane caricatures of London’s drunken masses a century before, pushing the presumption of an indelible link between poverty and intoxication and general societal malaise.

By 1858, Harper’s reported, 300,000 pounds of opium were arriving on American shores each year, with an estimated 90 percent reserved for recreational use. Half a century later, when the U.S. at last addressed the addiction crisis, the rate of addiction to opiate-based medication was three times higher than it would be in the 1990s.

Never mind that the significant majority of American heroin addicts in the mid-1800’s were middle- and upper-class women who bought the drug for their medicine cabinet. In the public psyche, the custodians of America’s opiate addiction were the depraved, poor, and foreign. It was, according to psychiatrist Pearce Bailey in a 1916 piece for The New Republic, a commodity of the “city life,” an arena at that point still linked in the public psyche to Jacob Riis’ grisly snapshots of squalid and overcrowded Lower East Side tenement buildings.

“The majority [of users] are boys and young men who… seem to want something that promises to make life gayer and more enjoyable,” Bailey writes. “It would almost seem that their desire for something to brighten life up is at the bottom of their trouble, and heroin is but a means.”

Since, it has remained the domain of the marginalized: degenerate jazz musicians, Beat poet fornicators, shell-shocked Vietnam vets. By the late 60’s, 200,000 American heroin addicts had become three-quarters of a million, a number that would grow sizably if we accounted for the abuse of other opiate-based drugs (oxycodone, morphine, and the rest). Janis Joplin was found beside a motel bed in October of 1970, dead of a heroin overdose. Four years earlier, comedian Lenny Bruce had died of “acute morphine poisoning” after years of a regular sinusoid between opioids and amphetamines. Jim Morrison died in ’71; John Belushi a decade later.

The weeks since Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death have seen the usual scramble that follows the visceral death of an American celebrity. It’s a process of canonization, usually, often at odds with the narrative already in place: before Michael Jackson was the late great—greatest?—artist, he was hounded by allegations of child sexual abuse. This time it’s a particularly difficult task: not because Hoffman lacked the party boy reputation of a Belushi or Chris Farley, but because of how deeply his work impacted the American emotional psyche. At the root of the hoopla is a genuine sort of grief.

In the frankest and arguably finest epitaph for Hoffman I’ve read, the writer known online as General Gandhi encourages us to avoid the ritual of narration altogether. It is a habit, he writes, of masturbatory sensationalism, an example of the crude and self-contradictory lens of detached idolization and quietly zealous schadenfreude through which the American public watches its stars. 

In other words, we objectify the individual, or at least dilute him to some bizarre caricature of sensational extremes that’s at once superhuman and humanoid. The actor becomes the character; his tragedies are scripted to entertain. We love that he overdosed. We’ll choose to ignore that we probably know and even love someone who suffers from addiction, and that it is an illness. We’ll relegate him to the disdained periphery, him and everyone else who’s died from a dependency on this cruelly habit-forming chemical.

And in doing so, we affirm the convenience of ignorance. Philip Seymour Hoffman was an artist, a father and, yes, a opiate addict. He is not the first opiate addict and he will not be the last. His death is a tragedy for his partner and children and, if we approach it properly, a cautionary tale for us. Let his inability to mesh with the easiest narrative make a dent in a centuries-old stigma.

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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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