BBC News


Page last updated at 14:18 GMT, Wednesday, 25 January 2006

When heroin was legal

By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

As recently as the 1950s, heroin was a popular medicine prescribed by family doctors. But growing fears about the drug's addictiveness led to the start of it becoming criminalised, 50 years ago this week.

"The Case for Heroin" - so ran the headline for the Times leader column of Tuesday, 14 June 1955.

In the course of a short, lucid article the newspaper which had long been the mouthpiece of Establishment Britain set out its argument in favour of heroin.

In the context of all that has happened since, from heroin's link with violent crime to the transfer of HIV among users who share needles, as well as countless other social ills, such an article today would seem unthinkable in all but the most libertarian of newspapers.

Globally, the clampdown of heroin was in full swing by the mid 1950s
In 1956 the US made the supply of heroin to a minor a capital offence
UK one of the few countries where diamorphine (heroin) still available on prescription
It is still prescribed to about 1% (about 500 people) of addicts as treatment
Macfarlan Smith is the only legal producer in the UK
(Source: Dr Tom Carnwath)

But in mid-1950s Britain, the spectre of drug addiction was a long way from the top of the public's concerns.

In fact, as the Times editorial states, in 1955 there were only 317 addicts to "manufactured" drugs in the whole of Britain, of which just 15% were dependent on heroin. That's a national total of 47.5 heroin addicts. History, regrettably, does not record the precise circumstances of the half-addict.

By contrast, in the US, where heroin was outlawed in 1925, it was said to be a "major social problem".

But who were this handful of heroin addicts?

According to Dr James Mills, a historian who has traced drug use through the 20th century, they tended to be doctors or middle-class patients who could afford to sustain a habit.

"In the 1930s, it was really the well-to-do crowd. The working classes might have a bit of heroin in the medicine prescribed to them but it wouldn't be enough to form a dependency," says Dr Mills.

Clearly, the fact heroin was legal and widely prescribed for common ailments such as coughs, colds and diarrhoea, as well as a pain killer, had not led to the sort of widespread dependency that opponents of legalisation fear it would do if legalised today.

In fact, heroin's emergence on to the medical stage was so low-key it effectively sat on the shelf for 20 years. First synthesised in 1874 by an English chemist, from morphine (an opiate) and acetic anhydride, and medically known as diacetylmorphine, it was picked up by the German drugs firm Bayer in 1898.

The name heroin probably derives from the German word heroisch, which means powerful. And it certainly was, with tests proving it was up to eight times stronger a painkiller than morphine.

Bad reputation

During the 19th Century, opiates had become a valuable commodity for British-run India, where they were grown and sold to China, which was home to millions of opium addicts. Although this trade began to decline in the early 20th century, the rise of opiate-based medicines was encouraged by the British.

From left: Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Billie Holiday
Jazz greats had known habits
But in the US it was already starting to get a bad reputation as an addictive drug that could produce intense euphoria. The Americans set about banning this dangerous new narcotic and put pressure on other countries to do the same.

In the UK, however, there was great resistance from medics who celebrated heroin's analgesic qualities. Nevertheless, the Home Office set up a drugs branch and began keeping tabs on the small number of heroin abusers.

In the 1930s, this amounted to little more than "one very small circle of heroin addicts", according to Henry "Bing" Spear, who became the government's anti-drug enforcement chief.

According to Spear, the group's three leaders had picked up their habit in mainland Europe and returned there to restock with heroin.

Selling brown

"They met at chemists and doctors' surgeries," according to Richard Davenport-Hines, in his book The Pursuit of Oblivion. "There was a bit of borrowing and lending but no evidence of widespread selling."

Rachel Whitear's body
Photos of addict Rachel's body were used in an anti-heroin campaign
"The police had a very tight rein on what was going on. The Home Office kept a register of addicts and there was never more than 500 at one time," says Dr James Mills.

After WWII, the illegal drugs scene began to take off in the UK, but was mainly confined to cannabis. In the US, however, heroin, despite being illegal, was finding its way into the bohemian jazz scene. Musicians such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday all had documented habits.

Britain was tame by comparison, says be-bop trumpeter Dizzy Reece, who came to London in 1948, aged 17.

"You never saw [heroin] in the clubs. Sure, some people were taking it but it was in private, at their house," says Reece, speaking from his home in New York.

"But I do remember people queuing up outside Boots chemist in Piccadilly Circus at midnight to get their heroin pills, on prescription. They called them 'jacks' - heroin pills."

What illegal activity there was, was pounced on by the police who launched a sting in September 1951, after hearing that a man named "Mark" was selling "white drugs" in London's West End. The man - real name Kevin Patrick Saunders - was arrested and found to have supplied heroin to 14 people.

By the mid 50s, international pressure was growing on the Eden government to ban heroin manufacture, imports and exports. And despite committing to such action in 1955, it retreated from the ban on manufacturing in response to doctors' protests, and, perhaps, the Times's leader column.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

As a former drug addict it may be thought I would be in favour of bans and the such like. However, I know from bitter experience the illegality surrounding heroin misuse made my problems worse. Some way of removing heroin from the hands of unscrupulous drug dealers and into the control of some form of official body is the only way to stem the widespread damage been caused to society at present. If heroin use can't be stopped (as has been shown with prohibition) safer methods of control must be put into place. I nave had to deal with deaths, violence and many things unimaginable to many. Dependancy should not place any individual outside of 'normal' society. The reasons for people from all walks of life becoming addicted are far too complex for it just to be seen as only the problem of those involved in it.
Ben Mc C, Llandaff, Cardiff, UK

Heroin, under its medical name Diamorphine, remains on the British National Formulary and is a strong painkiller used extensively in a wide range of patients; from post-operative cases to patients dying of cancer. Within it's legal confines, it is a very good drug but because of the social issues most other countries (including the US) do not have it on their formularies. I'm glad that we in Britain have access to such an effective drug. I agree that it needs to remain banned from general use or from use in cough mixtures etc. like in the 40's
Vivek Misra, Manchester, UK

My parents used to have lodgers staying when I was a boy, always young doctors temporarily working at a nearby hospital. I can recall, presumably in my early teens, one of them discussing the issue of banning heroin with my parents, and expressing regeret that the ban was coming in because there was nothing to compare with it for caring for dying patients, I can recall the converstaion quite clearly, and the name of the young doctor, whom I liked because he took me fishing.
David Evans, Southend on Sea

I arrive to Australia after 10 years of heroin addiction that took me all over the worl for cheap drugs or for treatment plans... Finally, the magic bullet for me and for thousand of other addicts came in the form of an implant with a opiate blocker.( bupremorphin)at that time only legal in 2-3 countries worldwide Each implant allows you to be clean for 6 to 9 months. It saved my life! I am now a much productive member of society, I have my business and my family back. It is possible, search for options.... happy and clean in Spain
AZ, spain

I find it strange that there were so few heroin 'addicts' when it was a legal substance - surely this has to do with the public's lack of disposable income and more defined idea of what was right or wrong at the time rather than an argument for the legalisation of a drug which ruins people's lives.
Sam, manchester

So in the UK it was legal and not a problem; in america it was illegal and a "major social problem", all that intense euphoria and all. then they band it in the UK and now it is a huge "problem". Am i the only one who can put two and two together to make four?
Lachlann Rattray, Glasgow

I can't work out what relevence the photograph of Rachel Whitear has to this article, since the article does not go much beyond 1955 in scope (and no mention of Rachel's unfortnuate demise, or recent anti-heroin campaigning is made in the article).
mark, London

I get the feeling that most of our drug laws are based on pressure from the USA. They have strong flavour of schizophrenic American puritansim about them. They love a war the septics. War on this, war on that. Strange coves.
steve, edinburgh

All drugs should be decriminalised. This would reduce crime in this country by over 50% and only result in a small increase in addiction. Most people are like myself and would not touch drugs with a barge pole and a lot of youngsters only get on to it now just to be anti-establishment. Cut the connection with crime and we can all sleep safer in our beds.
Kelvin Philpott, Yate, Bristol,England

That's where they went wrong, the government should have taxed it, not banned it. Legal and heavily-taxed would have made it less attractive than the thrill of something illegal. Plus it would be helping to pay for the problems it causes rather than being a drain on society.
Dave, Cambridge UK

It does make you wonder what we use today, that people 50 years from now will be saying "how could they allow that?"
Alan Jordan, Derby

Ah, prohibition, ignorance, fear, moral posturing... all have much to answer for.
Paul Angel, Preston, England

the arguements against drugs are artificial. some drugs are legitimate, alcohol being the major one while others have been made illegal. This allows for the price to the consumer to rise while enabling huge profits for the drug "companies" who bear a higher risk. the government can inflate it's spending to cover a myriad of ills associated with drugs and the fight against drugs but which would be dramatically reduced if all drugs were legalised. petty theft and prostitution would certainly drop. government regulation could improve purity and reduce the price diverting resources to real crime and improving the social problems. sounds easy? government has a vested interest in maintaining this fiction.
Gerry O'Neill, wayne, nj usa

I find it interesting that more recently experiments have been performed with getting people off Heroin addictions by prescribing them pure Heroin. Sounds odd but they had a resounding success. This is exactly what they used to do for people who got addicted because of an operation. This experiment was shutdown under US pressure. Now look at us. We prescribe a far far more dangerous drug and wonder why the heroin addicts aren't interested in taking it. More and more peope are becoming Heroin addicts.
Oscar, Oxford

Heroin is a disgusting drug, there are some things that you are not supposed to put into your body. The story of Rachel's experience was disturbing and I was compelled to buy the newspaper with the story in. I feel that help should be given to those who need it and not a drugs allowance, this only makes the matter worse. The sooner people realise this and start caring the sooner drugs crime will go down and people will come off of the streets. In a state such as an addict nothing matters except filfilling the withdrawl, there is no moral sense of right and wrong. I have seen this as in Bristol the problem is particularily bad.
Suz, age 17, Bristol

I wonder if the huge rise in addiction since the 50s is due to heroin (and cocaine etc) being criminalised. Once it was illegal to supply the price went up making it worthwhile for criminal gangs to set up supply and distribution networks. Of course, the fact that it was illegal made it attractive to many younger people, providing a market. Now, I believe, the price is relatively cheap, but the suppliers now have such a huge market that they can afford a 'stack it high, sell it cheap' marketing strategy.
Paul Braham, southampton

The German word heroisch does not in fact mean powerful, but heroic.
Louisa Wagner, Basel Switzerland

Heroin, however, remains available as a powerful analgesic medicine in the UK (known as diamorphine). Sadly its toxicity when misused was demonstrated by Dr Harold Shipman.
Roger I Hickling, Godmanchester, UK

You make light of the half-addict: and I applaud your tacit support of numeracy. Points West (the BBC regiona lnews programme for the South West) recently had a piece about drug abuse amongst prostitues in Bristol. The presenter claimed that "there are 200 women working as prostitutes, of whom almost all, 99.9%, have a drug problem". Presumably someone out there has a left leg that's gone straight?
j grant, Bristol

Many people who tell us that "one hit of heroin and you're hooked" are people who have also had the stuff: it is used as "pre-meds" for many operations, and as a painkiller by paramedics. Tobacco is far more addictive than any illegal drug.
Simon Richardson, London, UK

While no-one doubts the addictive properties of opiates, and the health dangers that it can pose to users, it's interesting that many of the "social problems" attributed to it are a side-effect of it being illegal. What if total decriminalisation meant a big drop in crime, a reduction in the scale of profits to criminals, a consequent reduction in gun crime and other gang-related problems? And what if the flipside was a large increase in the number of registered addicts? Would you trade the lives of the poor unfortunate addicts for a safer, lower-crime society? I think I would.
David, Sunderland, U.K.

Don't forget that it was because of the drugs trade to China that Britain leased Hong Kong until 1997. In the 19th century Christian Missionaries used to preach and then go and sell opium. I wonder what things of the 21st century will be incongruous to the people of the 23rd century?
John Airey, Peterborough, UK

Legalise + Distribute = Control.
Dan Fortesque, Windermere UK

We now know more about the dangers of this drug but despite this many people do not seem to take any notice. education needs to be improved on how different drugs work and what the legal system does about it.
j hunt, helsby

This begs the question then of 'what has changed since the time when it was readily available'? If we had so few addicts when it could be obtained, have we made it appealing to the young because we have told them they shouldn't take it? Are we by ploughing so much into tracking down 'drug lords', really attacking the symptom rather than the cause? Certainly by making it cheap to get hold of there would be less of a need to steal to feed an addiction and the funds released could be put into providing something more appealing than laying around a room getting high. Niave? Well the current methods are not working so who is to say this would be any worse?
Andrew Paine, Reading

I remember seeing the picture of Rachel when i was younger, it disturbed me so much. Looking on the website now and seeing it again years later, it still made me feel sick. Anything which could do the same thing as heroin did to that girl is horrific and is right to be banned. i had no idea that heroin was so widely used in the U.K to cure such things as diarrohea. But then i'm sure people in the future would be shocked by some of the things we still to do today, smoking for example.
James Clough, Altrincham

"In the context of all that has happened since, from heroin's link with violent crime to the transfer of HIV among users who share needles" - actually, an effective case could be made that the links with crime and the rise in HIV/addiction is owing to heroin's prohibition, rather than its existence. To what extent were criminal gangs involved in heroin's distribution before it was declared illegal?
David Clifford, Cambridge, UK

I think all drugs should be legalised and their use supervised. Governments should manage the production and distribution of drugs. The result? An enormous reduction in crime and disease in the Western world and a contribution to the stability of the producer countries. Addicts would be visible to the authorities, who would be in a better position to offer them medical and other assistance. To enact this, however, would require a brave politician, a commodity as scarce as hen's teeth.
Jennifer Thibault, Juvignac, France

Prohibition works!
simon, Bath

When drugs could be obtained legally,in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was no drug epidemic, and there were no profits for the drug pushers. Now, after 50 years of legislation, the problem is out of control. Nuff said?
Ian, London

The only answer is a zero tollerance approach. A minimum of 40 years for supply and 5 for posession, with no remission or parole. Forget the addicts. No-one MADE them take it in the first place, it was their choice. Lock them up and let them sweat it out. They are worthless theiving scum at best. For those that get out then re-affend they should re-introduce the death penalty. It is the only way to clean our streets.
John Smith, Elgin, Scotland

That it a really interesting story. I never would have thought that heroin was ever legal! I guess the law has to sprout from somewhere eh?
Lisa, Ireland

Makes you wonder what "prescribed" drugs of today could be the heroin of the future.
heather, middlesbrough

Despite the fact that I'm niether a Christian or an entirely law-abiding citizen I still agree with the Bible when it says that addiction is the sin, not the drug itself.
Moses Clavier, Salford, UK

Britain still has a relatively relaxed attitude to medical heroin. My mother was given two injections of it after a 26 hour labour (me!) rather than morphine because of the intensity of the pain. In contrast German doctors often refuse to prescribe morphine to cancer patients in the last weeks of their lives in case they become addicted.
Peter, Nottingham

My mum always says that she was given heroin by doctors whilst giving birth to my sister in 1958. Does anybody know if this is true? (She also surprised me by saying it was amazing and can understand why people get addicted to it.)
Adam, Madrid

This program makes perfect sence.....Why allow people to continue suffering the way they do day in day out when this could be done for all users. I as many want a normal day but cant when i have to use methadone it dosent work for me and i have to continue breaking the law just to get through a day.This way would also mean that i to could return to work which is what i want to do.
jo, newbury,england

You take away the criminal element, put heroin on prescription to those that need it when they need, it would cut crime, violence all the heart ache associated with it, still there are so many stupid people out there and education into the subject rather than public uproar would be a better option.
the poppy lover,

Your e-mail address
Town/city and country
Your comment

The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific