A timeline of the heroin problem in the U.S.

A brief chronology of heroin-related events since the 1850’s in the U.S.

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America’s Heroin Epidemic: A Chronology

Between 1999 and 2011, deaths attributable to opioids quadrupled, and the trend in America’s heroin epidemic continues unabated. In Ocean County, New Jersey, there were over one hundred drug overdose deaths in 2013, nearly double the number from the previous year, the majority of which have involved heroin (more here on heroin overdose).

Although heroin addiction has been a societal problem for centuries, new factors – including a proliferation of pain medication and lawlessness in Afghanistan – have contributed to an acceleration of abuse and dependency.

Here is a brief chronology of heroin-related events:

  • 1853  The invention of hypodermic needles (first used to inject morphine)
  • 1874  Heroin is synthesized
  • 1897  Bayer Pharmaceuticals synthesizes heroin and markets it aggressively for a variety of ailments
  • Early 1900s  Doctors begin to notice heavy consumption of cough medicines containing heroin
  • 1914  The Harrison Narcotics Act passes, outlawing the manufacture and possession of heroin
  • 1971  The Nixon Administration launches the War on Drugs
  • 1990s  Pain medications that contain oxycodone and hydrocodone become more common, leading to dependency outside of the traditional drug culture (by 2012, hydrocodone was the most prescribed drug in the U.S.). Users in many cases moved on to heroin because it was cheaper.
  • 2002  Post-invasion Afghanistan resumes opium production, eventually producing 95% of the world’s supply.
  • 2003  The National Drug Intelligence Center reports that, “Treatment data indicate that heroin is abused at high and increasing levels in the Northeast, particularly in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.”
  • 2011  The Ohio Substance Abuse Monitoring Network reports an alarming increase in the amount of new teen heroin users.
  • 2013  Demographic for heroin addiction shows shift. In 2000, the highest death rate from heroin overdoses was in blacks ages 45 to 64. But in 2013, whites ages 18 to 44 had the highest rate. Whites in that age group accounted for more than half of the heroin-related overdose deaths that year.
  • 2014  Overdose count continues to grow. More than 8000 heroin-related deaths occurred in 2013, compared to nearly 6000 in 2012. The rates increased significantly since 2010, when deaths numbered about 3,000. Heroin-related deaths were up among both men and women, in all age groups, and in whites, blacks, and Hispanics.
  • 2015  Policymakers from both ends of the political spectrum call the War on Drugs a failure and decry the mass incarceration of drug offenders. New approaches to addiction are examined, and states continue to approve medications like naloxone, buprenorphine, and methadone to treat heroin overdoses.

Because of the damage done at the individual, family and community levels, the term “America’s heroin epidemic” has become familiar among policymakers, academics and in the news. The ripple effect from user to society at large is dramatic:

  1. Crime and its associated costs (harm to victims, law enforcement, incarceration), Productivity losses
  2. Medical costs
  3. Addicts as vectors for HIV and Hepatitis
  4. The emotional costs to loved ones

These effects cumulatively impose an enormous burden on the nation. Fortunately, treatment continues to grow in effectiveness, and addicts can find recovery if they want it. The key to solving America’s heroin epidemic is making treatment available.

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About the author
Jake Sandino is a writer focused within the realm of addiction and substance abuse. He achieved his own recovery through a holistic alcohol and drug rehab approach.
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