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Written by Zoe Blain
Week 6: Things that were once legal…

HEROIN: NEEDLES. AIDS. ADDICTION. OVERDOSE. INFECTION. DEATH. I would definitely have a much harder time defending heroin than marijuana, and its companion class A drug LSD. This week’s post is rather a journey down prohibition lane, marveling at the western world’s somewhat hilarious attempts to combat opiate addiction.

Opium, derived from poppy seeds, has been cultivated and consumed for thousands of years. These days, it is usually associated with seedy oriental drug dens and evil middle eastern money making regimes. However, in 1805, German pharmacist Friedrich W. Serturner isolated opium’s prime psychoactive alkaloid morphine. As opium was proving to be a problem child in the western world (due to escalating addiction rates), morphine was marketed as a non addictive alternative.

The new substance spread through Europe like an euphorically charged wildfire, with embers quickly alighting America and Australia. It was a wonder drug; the most effective painkiller the western world had ever seen. Soon, mothers were rejoicing; marveling at its astounding ability to suppress the coughs and headaches of their children. In nineteenth century America, the substance was even marketed as a highly effective cure for alcoholism, which was seen to be a much larger social issue.

However, each silver cloud has a dark underbelly. Addiction rates were rising, with doctors even prescribing themselves huge quantities of the stuff. So, Seventy years of frolicking through the poppy fields later, German pharmaceutical company Bayer synthesized a cure…


Whilst marketed as a cure for Morphine addiction, Heroin was also a superior cough suppressant. (Perhaps because Heroin is two to three times more potent that its predecessor.) Its popularity quickly escalated, and once again, history repeated itself. Except this time, European chemists gave up, and Heroin was proclaimed illegal in all Western countries by 1930.

Today, in the twenty first century, as the war on drugs rages on in America, its neighbors have been quietly decriminalizing Heroin use and possession. In Canada, a number of ‘supervised injection sites’ have sprung up in major cities; aiming to minimalise harm. Just this month, Mexico decriminalized the possession of small quantities of Heroin, along with a number of other formally illegal substances.

Perhaps you’d be surprised to hear that Morphine is merely a controlled substance, with hospitals worldwide still favouring it as a painkiller. Furthermore, Codeine, which is another psychoactive opium alkaloid is still a popular ingredient in cough medicines today. It’s use has also extended to encompass anti-diarrheal, antihypertensive, anti-anxiety and sedative medications.

So where is the future of opiate prohibition headed? I personally have no idea, but am happy to sit back, relax, and enjoy the political show.


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