Heroin: Everything you need to know
Heroin: A Definition
Heroin is notorious for being one of, if not the most dangerous drug available. It is an incredibly powerful opiate drug made from morphine, extracted from the seed pods of specific types of poppy plants.
It is an illegal narcotic drug classified as a Schedule I drug with the Drug Enforcement Administration. There are no medical uses for heroin and it’s recognized as having an incredibly high potential for abuse.
While only an estimated half a million people actively use heroin it is by far the most deadly drug available. In 2017, heroin use claimed the lives of more than 40 people each day. Heroin-related incidents lead to to 81,326 emergency room visits in 2015. And between 2010 and 2017, overdoses caused by heroin increased more than five times over.
What is heroin, why do people use it, and why does it claim an increasing number of lives each year?
What is Heroin?
Heroin is a “downer,” an opiate drug that causes users to feel an extreme sense of calmness and relaxation. It usually comes in one of two forms: a crushed brown or white powder, or a sticky black substance.
The sticky black type of heroin is more common and more affordable than the more “pure” white powdered form. People use the former either by smoking it off of foil or cooking it down and injecting it into a vein, also called “shooting up.” They can ingest the powdered form in the same ways, but also have the option to snort the powder.
Smoking heroin is the most common way to use it since it’s easier to purchase foil than it is to purchase syringes. Injecting the drug results in the strongest high, though, but it is also a riskier way to use it.
Effects of Heroin
The effects of the drug come on quickly regardless of the way a user ingests it. Heroin binds to and activates the opioid receptors in the brain. These receptors are responsible for the perception of pain and pleasure, as well as sleeping, heart rate, and breathing.
Heroin causes extreme and overwhelming feelings of euphoria, calmness, drowsiness, and relaxation. It causes heaviness in the user’s arms and legs and flushing of their skin. Itchiness, dry mouth, nausea, and vomiting are some of the less pleasant side effects of heroin use. It also causes constipation and other stomach issues.
“Nodding out” is one of the biggest effects of heroin. It is a slang term that refers to the way users slip between states of wakefulness and sleep. Nodding out is characterized by the way a user’s head and chin droops or “nods” down to their chest when they are high.
Street Names and Nicknames for Heroin
While users often refer to heroin simply by its name, there are a few other slang terms that they also use to talk about the drug. For example, the two different forms of heroin each have their own nickname. The white powder form of heroin is usually “China White” or “White China”. The sticky black form of the drug is mostly called black tar heroin.
Regardless of the type of heroin it is, though, many users call it “dope.” They also call the onset of heroin withdrawal symptoms while coming down “dope sickness.” Some people call it “H” or “Big H.” Less common street names for heroin include:
- Hell Dust
Chemistry of Heroin
Heroin is made from morphine, which is taken from the pods of poppy plants. These plants tend to grow mainly in Mexico, Colombia, and both Southeast and Southwest Asia. Bayer pharmaceuticals first synthesized it in 1874 as a safer alternative to morphine for treating pain.
Clinicians quickly realized that their supposed “safer” alternative to morphine was just as harmful. The United States outlawed heroin in 1924 but that didn’t keep people from illegally manufacturing the drug.
The heroin found on the streets today now comes in two main forms: white or brown powder and sticky, black tar. These two versions come from the different manufacturing methods used to create them.
Black tar heroin gets its dark, tar-like appearance from the impurities that the manufacturing process leaves behind. Powdered heroin is considered a more “pure” form of the drug since there are fewer impurities in this form of substance.
This doesn’t mean that China White is any safer than black tar, though. There may be fewer impurities from the manufacturing process itself but it’s not free of foreign contents. Heroin manufacturers cut the powdered form of the drug with fillers like starch, sugars, or powdered milk to increase profits.
The notorious nature of heroin caused a few different myths about the drug. Although it’s never safe to use heroin it’s also dangerous to spread misinformation about it. The following are a few examples of the myths associated with heroin and heroin users.
A legitimate pain medication prescription can lead to heroin use.
Statistics from one study revealed that 75 percent of heroin users first started with using prescription pain medication. While those statistics are accurate, another survey showed that over 75 percent of people using painkillers were using these drugs without a prescription. So opioids may lead to heroin use but only 4 percent of people who use opioids start using heroin.
Heroin causes HIV or hepatitis.
Some users develop HIV or hepatitis as a result of using heroin but the drug itself isn’t what causes these conditions. People contract these conditions when they inject heroin with a “dirty needle,” meaning one already used by someone else who has HIV or hepatitis.
It is impossible to maintain long-term recovery from heroin use.
Studies surrounding the relapse rates of heroin users scare people and trick them into thinking it’s impossible to get clean. This couldn’t be further from the truth, though. It is difficult to quit using heroin but it isn’t impossible. There are many options for people trying to get clean, especially addiction treatment at a certified facility.
The fact of the matter is that heroin use is dangerous. It doesn’t matter which form of the drug someone uses or the method in which they ingest it. Heroin is incredibly addictive and it’s difficult to quit using. Additionally, the grim facts and statistics surrounding heroin use are alarming.
- Heroin use leads to a large number of negative long-term health effects.
- IV drug use caused nearly 20 percent of recorded cases of HIV in men in 2016.
- Some studies show a loss of brain matter associated with long-term heroin use.
- An overdose can occur even after one bad shot due to inconsistencies in batches.
Where Does Heroin Come From?
In order to find out where heroin comes from, you have to trace the production of the drug. Heroin found on the streets is made with morphine as its base. Morphine is a drug extracted from opium, and opium is a substance harvested from the pods of poppy plants.
Opium use dates back to ancient times in Mesopotamia, what is now Southwest Asia. It made its way through various locations, from the Sumerians to the Assyrians and the Egyptians. The drug was also eventually traded along the Silk Road, expanding its reach throughout Asia and the Mediterranean.
People also noted the pleasurable, euphoric, and relaxing effects that came with ingesting opium. These effects encouraged the recreational use of the drug, particularly in China after Britain smuggled in Indian opium supplies.
Then opium dens were created as establishments to purchase and smoke opium, found throughout Southeast Asia and China. When Chinese immigrants came to the United States in the 1800’s during the Gold Rush they brought recreational opium use with them.
When Was Heroin Discovered?
Again, heroin production can be traced back to opium production. Despite the recreational use of opium, there were legitimate medical uses for it as well. It helped treat severe pain and induce sleep in those with sleeping problems.
Drug manufacturers looked to extract the active ingredients in opium to create stronger drugs. Scientists first extracted morphine from opium in 1803, a drug 10 times stronger than its opium base. Physicians saw it as a miracle drug for effective pain relief and still use it to this day.
Morphine didn’t come without its negative effects, though. It is an incredibly addictive drug and after widespread use as a painkiller, many people became addicted. The Bayer Company, a pharmaceutical company in Germany, set out to create a non-addictive form of morphine in response.
Scientists at Bayer first created heroin from morphine in 1874 then brought it to market in 1898. Physicians prescribed it as a cough suppressant and pain reliever to both adults and children. Unfortunately, they didn’t realize this newer form of the miracle drug came with an incredible addiction potential as well.
When Did Heroin Come to the United States?
Medical heroin made its way into physicians’ offices in the United States around the turn of the 20th century. It was still used to treat patients for pain and cough. But the recreational use of heroin soon became popular as well.
Rates of heroin abuse skyrocketed throughout the first decade of the 1900’s. Physicians could no longer deny the addictive nature of heroin in addition to morphine. President Theodore Roosevelt positioned Dr. Hamilton Wright as the country’s Opium Commissioner to address the issue in 1908.
In 1914 the United States passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act as a response to the still-growing rates of opiate use. The act was made to regulate the sale and use of opiate drugs, including both heroin and opium.
When Did Heroin Become Illegal?
Despite the moves the United States government made to limit the use of opiates, the narcotic was still popular. Congress then passed the Anti-Heroin Act of 1924 as an additional step to push back against the use of opiates.
The Anti-Heroin Act made the manufacturing, importing, or selling of either heroin or opium illegal. This was the U.S. government’s first move towards outlawing opiate drugs. But this still didn’t stop manufacturers from creating heroin outside of the United States then trafficking it into the country.
Nearly 50 years later, President Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to enforce the country’s drug laws. The heroin problem was still in full-force and Nixon hoped that a narcotics-focused administration would help counter the issue.
The DEA also created the drug scheduling chart and placed heroin in its highest classification: Schedule I. Schedule I drugs are known for their incredible potential for abuse and their lack of use in the medical field.