As the medical community began to realize the highly addictive nature of morphine in the early 20th century, serious efforts began to find a less addictive alternative. Unfortunately, what was discovered was more potent and addictive. Diacetylmorphine, or heroin, was invented in 1874 by combining morphine and acetic acid. Heroin’s name is believed to have come from the German word for heroic, which was used by German doctors in the 19th century to describe powerful medicines. Commercial production of heroin began in 1898, and within a few years, it became evident just how addictive the new drug was. Growing heroin addiction in cities like New York –along with cocaine– played a role in its inclusion as one of the drugs to be restricted under the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914. The drug was made illegal in the U.S. by 1926.
U.S. WWI veterans also grappled with heroin addiction, but the drug’s ban and devastating effects rendered it absent until the 1940s and 50s when some jazz musicians like Charlie Parker made it a part of their repertoire. The preferred drug among the jazz crowd had been marijuana, but this would change as the Italian mafia began pouring heroin into the streets of Harlem and beyond, similar to what the Mexican cartels are doing today.
Heroin remained on the fringes of society, including with the nascent beatnik crowd. While Beatniks mostly smoked marijuana, some dabbled in heroin. Gradually, marijuana and heroin would become the soft and hard drugs of the 1960s –marijuana the staple drug at U.S. universities and heroin confined to poor urban settings. The major exception was growing heroin use among returning Vietnam vets who had been exposed to the some of the purest heroin available in the world. To dull the pains of war, many brought back supplies or found it in cities like New York and San Francisco. The sight of Vietnam vets addicted to heroin and the spike in overdose deaths finally got the government’s attention. In the spring of 1970, there were no more than a few deaths from heroin, but by the fall, the figure climbed to two per day. Expanding marijuana and LSD use certainly drew the nation’s attention to the developing drug culture, but it was heroin that moved the Nixon administration into action and declare the war on drugs.