|62480. Wed Mar 29, 2006 9:40 am
When did Harrods stop selling heroin?
During World War One.
“Sweethearts and mothers” used to buy packets of H to send to their boys in the trenches, but a moral panic about opiate overuse by soldiers on the Western front, and while home on leave, prompted the British government to introduce drug control laws.
The heroin (properly, at that time, Heroin; it was a brand name) was sold in the form of gel. The authorities blamed it in part for a decline in discipline in the trenches.
It wasn’t just Heroin, either:
|“In London in 1916, Harrods were selling a kit described as "A Welcome Present for Friends at the Front" containing cocaine, morphine, syringes and needles.” |
Heroin was invented (or stolen from his staff) by Heinrich Dreser, a head chemist at the pharma giant Bayer, who also invented Aspirin (ditto). Heroin was registered as a trademark in 1898. Dreser was one of the most innovative medical chemists of his time. He was the first to test drugs on animals on an industrial scale. (Heroin was tested on sticklebacks, frog and rabbits; the tests did not, surprise surprise, reveal its addictive qualities).
In 1897 one of Dreser’s staff came up with a reliable process for manufacturing ASA, the active ingredient of aspirin (which had been known about for a long time.) Dreser rejected it: “The product has no value,” he said. He claimed that his objection was that aspirin would have “an enfeebling action” on the heart; more likely, he did not want anything to distract from the launch of what he was sure was a much more important and lucrative wonder drug - heroin.
In fact, diacetylmorphine had been invented in Britain in 1874, but Dreser was the first to spot its potential. Chemists everywhere were looking for a non-addictive alternative to morphine as a painkiller and a treatment for respiratory diseases. Two weeks after synthesising aspirin, Dreser’s underling, Hoffman, synthesised heroin.
Following the animal tests, heroin was tested on Bayer employees, who loved it. It made them feel heroic, they said; hence the brand name. Dreser claimed it was 10 times more effective as a cough medicine than codeine, without all the nasty side-effects. It was a better painkiller than morphine. It was safe, and non-habit forming.
Heroin’s most important application was not as a painkiller - but as a cough medicine, saving the lives of patients with tuberculosis and pneumonia, as well as asthma and bronchitis. The logo on the promotional samples sent to doctors around the world showed a lion and a globe.
It took off everywhere, but especially in the US; in a land of morphine addiction, Heroin seemed a godsend. It was used in cough mixture, and sold as Heroin pastilles, Heroin cough drops and so on.
The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal wrote in 1900: “It possesses many advantages over morphine. It’s not hypnotic, and there’s no danger of acquiring a habit.”
In fact, fears about people developing a tolerance to Heroin arose as early as 1899. One expert condemned it as “an extremely dangerous poison” and by 1902, doctors were reporting cases of “Heroinism.”
Gradually, wishful thinking receded and the tide of opinion turned against Heroin; this didn't matter much to Bayer or to Dreser, who switched their attentions to Aspirin instead, and made a fortune out of that (Dreser claiming full credit for a drug he’d had little to do with in the early stages).
Bayer stooped making heroin in 1913; in 1914, its use without prescription was banned in the US.
It is rumoured that Dreser (who was famous for taking an obese dachshund with him everywhere, even into the lab) was a heroin addict in his final years. His cause of death was listed as stroke; today, many doctors believe that a regular dose of aspirin can prevent strokes.
95% of the world’s legal, medical use of heroin today is in Britain.
In 1898 it was estimated that there were 250,000 heroin addicts in the US - “a per capita rate roughly twice as high as today’s.”
Opium was always more popular than heroin in Britain; and was superseded for most uses, and in public popularity as a wonder drug, by aspirin.
In 1989, the typical morphine addict in US and UK was a middle-class woman in her forties; the typical heroin addict today is an 18-year-old male.
A lovely festive little package wrapped up in ribbons being handed to a customer in a posh, old-time shop.
‘Inventing the Victorians’ by Matthew Sweet (Faber, 2001).