While the synthesis of heroin can be dated to the close of the 19th century (originally 1874 in Paddington and commercially in 1899 by Bayer in Germany), opium has a long social and medical connection with humans (see 'Opium'). There is a fascinating argument that suggests that the attempts to prevent opium use in cultures where it had been ingrained for many centuries merely succeeded in promoting heroin as an alternative. This not only introduced the drug without the cultural context that had grown over time, often many centuries, around opium use, but introduced injecting (opium is not injected, heroin as a salt can be) as a faster, 'cheaper by the dose' option for users with disastrous consequences, paticularly the spread of BBV's and increased incidence of overdose. It is frequently suggested that allowing the supply of the drug to be monopolised by profit-maximising criminals causes problems that cannot eradicate supply but merely compound the health, legal and social problems addicts face. The drug has been available for years in the UK on prescription and still is in terminal care and cases where a person is suffering chronic, severe pain, but doctors need a Home Office licence to supply heroin (diamorphine) for the treatment of addiction.
The idea of treating patients with the drug they are addicted to but removing the 'black market' is called 'The British System', but is now utilised more commonly elsewhere in the EU. For information on the controlled supply of heroin to dependent users, visit the link at the end of this page.