UK’s History of Heroin Addiction

The UK has had a long and complex history of heroin addiction, dating back to the late 19th century. And despite efforts to curb its use, the opioid continues to wreak havoc on individuals and communities across the country.

In this article, we will explore the history of heroin addiction in the UK, from the early days of its use to the present day. We will examine the factors that have contributed to the rise of heroin addiction and the efforts made to reduce the associated harm. We will also look at the current state of heroin addiction in the UK and the challenges in addressing this issue.


The Emergence of Heroin in the UK

The inception of heroin can be traced back to the late 1800s when it was first synthesised by the German pharmaceutical company Bayer. The company marketed the drug as a non-addictive alternative to morphine and sold it under the brand name “Heroin.”

At the time, it was widely prescribed by doctors for various medical conditions, including pain relief and cough suppression. However, it was soon discovered that the drug was highly addictive, and its recreational use skyrocketed. This led to widespread addiction and health problems worldwide. Its widespread recreational use was also, particularly among soldiers during World War I.

Despite increasing concerns about the dangers of heroin, it continued to be prescribed and used for several decades. About 5,000 people used heroin in England in 1975. A few decades later–in 2019, the UK is still the largest reported opioid-using population in Europe.

The Government's Response to the Rise of Heroin Use

Before the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971, the UK had a relatively liberal drug policy. The act was introduced to address concerns about the increasing use of harmful drugs, such as heroin. It also provided a legal framework to control and regulate the production, supply, and use of heroin. This act classifies drugs into three classes (A, B, and C) based on their perceived harmfulness and potential for abuse.

Generally, heroin is classified as a Class A drug, meaning it has a high potential for harm and is illegal to possess, produce, or supply. According to the Act, the penalties for possessing, producing, or supplying heroin can include imprisonment and substantial fines. Other drugs on this list include cocaine, crystal meth, and LSD.

The act was intended to reduce the number of people misusing illegal and other harmful drugs and to address the associated health and social consequences. And since its introduction, the act has been amended several times to reflect changing attitudes towards drug use and to take account of new scientific knowledge about the effects of drugs on health. The UK government continues to review and update its drug policy to ensure that it remains effective in reducing harm and addressing the challenges of drug misuse.

The Peak of Heroin Addiction in the UK

The peak of heroin addiction in the UK occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s. At that time, heroin use was widespread, and the country faced a severe public health crisis. The rise of heroin addiction was driven by several factors, including;

  • Increased drug availability
  • Declining economic conditions
  • Changes in drug-taking behaviours

In response to this crisis, the UK government and the National Health Service (NHS) launched a comprehensive range of harm reduction and treatment initiatives, including medication-assisted treatment, behavioural therapies, and (mostly outpatient) rehabilitation programmes. These initiatives helped reduce the number of people using the drug and becoming addicted.

What Impact Has Heroin Had on the UK?

Heroin has had a significant impact on society–especially the UK- in terms of the health consequences for individuals who use the drug and the broader social effects. Firstly, from a health perspective, heroin use can lead to severe physical and psychological health problems, including overdose and long-term damage to the brain and body.

From a social perspective, heroin use and addiction can devastate families and communities. It can lead to unemployment, homelessness, poverty, and crime. Heroin use also places a significant burden on healthcare systems, other public services, and the criminal justice system.

In addition to the direct consequences of heroin use, the drug has also contributed to the spread of associated criminal activities, such as drug trafficking and organised crime. For example, the heroin epidemic in the 80s and 90s had a statistically proven effect on crime trends. This shows that these activities can have far-reaching impacts on communities and can undermine social stability.

Overall, heroin has profoundly impacted society and poses significant challenges for individuals, families, and communities. The response to this issue requires a comprehensive, evidence-based approach that balances effective treatment and harm reduction strategies with the need for law enforcement efforts to reduce the drug supply.

The Present: What Is the Current State of Heroin Addiction in the UK

The current heroin addiction in the UK remains a significant public health issue. However, the number of people using the drug and becoming addicted has declined in recent years. Nevertheless, according to current estimates, there are still tens of thousands of people in the UK who are dependent on heroin and many more who are at risk of developing a dependency.

For example, in 2018, there were 76 deaths per million people in England. And there were over 9,000 seizures of heroin in 2020. So compared to previous years, there is a reduced and stable trend.

What Are the Efforts Being Made to Combat Heroin Addiction?

The UK government and the National Health Service (NHS) continue to implement a range of harm reduction and treatment initiatives to reduce the adverse health and social consequences of heroin use. The UK is addressing heroin addiction through various efforts, including:

  1. Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) with methadone or buprenorphine
  2. Psychological therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
  3. Support groups like Narcotics Anonymous
  4. Needle exchange programmes to prevent the spread of disease
  5. Rehabilitation and detoxification programmes
  6. Funding for research and development of new treatments
  7. Stricter law enforcement to reduce drug trafficking.

These efforts aim to provide a comprehensive approach to treating addiction and support recovery.


In conclusion, the UK has a long history of heroin addiction. It has been grappling with this problem for many decades. Thus, the government, healthcare providers, and the community must continue working together to address this issue and provide support toward recovery. The history of heroin addiction in the UK serves as a reminder of the devastating effects of substance abuse and the importance of ongoing efforts to tackle the problem.