Heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid drug, also referred to as a narcotic. It is highly addictive and acts immediately upon consumption.1 Heroin is synthesized from morphine, which is a derivative of the opium poppy, a flower grown throughout the world.
Heroin is part of a large family of narcotics that range from prescription medications to illegal drugs. These narcotics include:
- Opium – the sticky sap of the poppy seed pod. It is now rarely used medicinally, typically smoked.
- Morphine – a natural ingredient in opium. It is used to relieve severe pain and is a legal medicinal prescription.
- Codeine - like morphine, it is a natural ingredient of opium, although less potent. It is found in prescription cough medicines and pain relievers.
- Opium derivatives - prescribed for moderate to severe pain:
oxycodone (Percodan, Percocet)
hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab, Lorcet)
- Methadone - a synthetic drug used mainly in the treatment of heroin addiction.
- Fentanyl - is a powerful synthetic drug used for severe pain and as a surgical anesthetic.2
Heroin is a powder that has a range of different shades of white - very white to off-white, brown, or black - depending on its purity. Typically, the whiter the powder the less impurities there are and the more pure the drug.
Heroin also comes in a solid, black form known as black tar. It is sticky and has a tar like consistency.
Heroin is injected, snorted, or smoked.
The American Council for Drug Education specifically explains the variety of ways to use heroin:2
- When prescribed as a narcotic, heroin is taken by mouth, in a pill form.
- Heroin can be snorted, sniffed, and sometimes users dissolve it in nose drops.
- Heroin can be mixed with tobacco or marijuana and smoked.
- Injecting heroin is commonly done because you do not need as high of a dose to get the same “rush” as smoking or inhaling. Injecting heroin in a major vein is known as “mainlining” and injecting it under the skin is known as “popping.”
Users often start with smoking or snorting heroin because they do not want to be associated with the stigma of injecting drugs. However, as a person progressively uses more of the drug, they begin injecting because it releases the heroin in a user’s blood stream quicker. This produces a faster, stronger high. It is also cheaper because a person does not need as high of a dose to get high.
Heroin is the chemical known as diacetylmorphine. It is made out of the milk of opium poppies, which is morphine in the form of raw opium. Heroin is made by chemically reducing the opium to a morphine base and into heroin.4
Heroin was first synthesized from morphine by chemist C.R. Alder Wright in London in 1853. However, its potential as a drug was not realized until 1897 when Flix Hoffman at Bayer Pharmaceutical synthesized it and began marketing it as a treatment for respiratory problems. In 1911, the British pharmaceutical company Codex recognized that heroin is as addictive. In 1913, Bayer stopped producing heroin and in 1924 The Heroin Act passed the US congress, in which manufacturing, selling, and possessing heroin was made illegal.5
The first time a person does heroin intravenously (meaning he/she injects heroin into the body using a needle) is not always enjoyable. It may sometimes cause the person to vomit or have nausea. If the user is not scared away by this first time, subsequent injections lead to a feeling of a “rush” or “high” that is felt for a couple of minutes as the heroin floods the brain and goes into the blood stream and becomes a more useable form of morphine.
Quickly after heroin is taken, it enters the blood stream, is taken to the brain, is converted to morphine, and binds to opioid receptors. Opioid receptors are connected to a person’s central nervous system and control pain responses. This is what causes the euphoric “rush” that the user feels after heroin is injected or inhaled. It also gives the user a warm flush in his/her skin, dry mouth, and there is a heaviness that comes over the body. After this rush of euphoria, the user can go “on the nod,” which is a back and forth drifting between being alert and awake to very sleepy.
Other short-term effects of heroin are a slow, slurred speech, clouded mental functioning, suppression of pain, constricted pupils, droopy eyelids, itchy skin, vomiting, and constipation.
Addiction itself is one of the most detrimental long-term effects of heroin abuse. While the specific amount is debated, it is clear that over a short period of time there is a dramatic increase in the amount of heroin needed to achieve a satisfying high.As a person uses higher doses of heroin, his/her tolerance builds. Often, if he/she cannot find the next hit in a relatively short period of time, the person may experience withdrawal symptoms.
Other long-term effects of heroin user are: collapsed veins (if injected), bacterial infections, abscesses, infection of heart lining and valves, arthritis, lung complications, and other rheumatologic problems. Possible problems brought on by use include infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C, if the person injects heroin using unclean needles.
You or your loved one is a candidate for drug detox, rehabilitation, and treatment if one or more of these symptoms are displayed and there is knowledge or suspicion of meth use.
2) “Basic Facts About Drugs: Heroin.” American Council for Drug Education. Date downloaded: July 13, 2010.
3) “Street Names.” In the Know Zone. Date down loaded: July 13, 2010.
4) “Bitter Harvest.” Wide Angle. PBS. August, 2002. Date Downloaded: June 18, 2010.
5) “Heroin Timeline.” Erowid. Date downloaded: July 13, 2010.
6) “Heroin in the Brain: Its Chemistry and Effects.” The Opium Kings. Frontline. Date downloaded: June 18, 2010.
7) “Heroin Abuse and Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. Date downloaded: July 13, 2010.
8) “Glossary: Opioid Receptors.” Nature.com. Date downloaded July 13, 2010.
9) “Heroin.” The Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Date downloaded: July 13, 2010.
10) “Notes on Heroin Dosage & Tolerance.” Erowid. Created May, 2001. Date downloaded: July 13, 2010.
11) “Heroin Abuse and Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. Date downloaded: July 13, 2010.