Heroin addiction has become almost normalized in our culture, and it’s not difficult to see why. Requiem for a Dream. Trainspotting. Sid and Nancy. All are movies depicting heroin addicts in a light which can be best described as glamorous. Sure, the characters are attractive. Ewan MacGregor and Jennifer Connelly could make anything look good.
But heroin addiction is a real problem, and a serious one. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that death by heroin overdose increased sixfold from 2002 to 2015. And a recent study by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that kids as young as 12 reported that they’d have “no problem” finding heroin for purchase.
So what is it that makes this drug so appealing? What causes an estimated 9.2 million people to continue use of the drug? Here’s what you need to know about this highly addictive drug.
Heroin Addiction Basics
According to Merriam-Webster, heroin is:
a strongly physiologically addictive narcotic C21H23NO5 that is made by acetylation of but is more potent than morphine and that is prohibited for medical use in the U.S. but is used illicitly for its euphoric effects
And if you’re like 90 percent of the human population, you understood about three words of that. So let’s break it down a bit.
First of all, heroin is physiologically addictive. It’s not a psychological addiction, like a gambling or an internet addiction. Heroin becomes something that an addict’s body craves and needs in order to function. Without heroin, a user’s body will experience withdrawal symptoms like shaking, vomiting and muscle spasms.
Secondly, the drug is an acetylation of morphine. Morphine is a drug which is used in medical applications. For example, surgical patients may be administered the drug as a painkiller. The addition of the radical acetyl to morphine creates a drug which is more potent. Heroin, unlike morphine, is not used for medical purposes.
Finally, heroin is an illicit street drug, used for its euphoric effects. This means, of course, that it’s illegal to use heroin. The euphoric state which is caused by heroin use is the primary reason cited by heroin users for their continued use of the drug.
Heroin users span many demographics. Historically speaking, heroin addicts have been depicted as low income, inner city folks of all ethnicities. But a study by JAMA Psychiatry found that in reality, the new generation of heroin abusers is comprised of white, suburban people who tend to be more advanced in age. Those with heroin addiction have reported previous use (and abuse) of prescription painkillers.
Is Heroin an Opiate?
There’s been a lot of discussion over the years as to whether heroin is a true opiate. An opiate is defined as a substance which is created by the extraction of opium from the Asian opium plant. Morphine would be an example of an opiate, as it’s directly derived from the plant.
However, opioids are similar to opiates. They are generally defined as synthetically created substances which work in a way that’s similar to opiates. Codeine and methadone are examples of opioids. So, because heroin does, in fact, contain morphine, it could be considered an opiate. But the chemical processes used to create it may prompt some to classify it as an opioid.
What is Heroin Made Of?
You may be wondering why heroin, in comparison with other drugs, is so inexpensive, and why heroin addiction is a fairly cheap addiction by comparison. We mentioned that heroin is processed from morphine, and morphine is a naturally occurring substance.
Morphine, and subsequently heroin, comes from a specific species of poppy plant which grows in southeastern Asia. The plant isn’t only found in Asia, however. It’s cultivated across the globe. Nations like Afghanistan, Mexico and Colombia are some of the biggest growers of the plant. And many smaller farms exist for the purpose of growing and selling the heroin plant.
Combining the extract of this poppy plant with several commonly found ingredients produces the drug morphine. And morphine, when infused with acetic anhydride, creates heroin.
How is Heroin Made
The purpose of this site isn’t to provide instruction for the manufacture of drugs. Instead, let’s look at what ingredients are used in to make heroin.
Morphine can be made using a few household items, like baking soda and activated charcoal. Chloroform and acetone are also used. Combining the resulting morphine with acetic anhydride under heated conditions creates heroin.
First, the morphine is extracted from the poppy seed to create opium bricks. These are crushed and dissolved with water lime until the mixture reaches the proper pH.
This mixture is allowed to settle, and a layer of morphine will rise to the top. The solution is strained, creating two substances. The first is the white morphine later, and the other is a brown paste, which is a morphine base.
The morphine paste is pressed into bricks and allowed to dry, and once it’s dry it’s ready to be used to create heroin. To convert morphine to heroin, acetic anhydride and morphine are mixed and heated. This creates diacetylmorphine, an odorless but impure substance.
Water and chloroform are added, as is baking soda. Because the solution is has a base pH, the addition of baking soda will cause the release of carbon dioxide. Baking soda’s added until the solution no longer “sizzles”, and a brown heroin product settles at the bottom.
Hydrochloric acid, chloroform, ammonia, acetone and activated charcoal are used to purify this brown heroin. When the process is complete, a white, fluffy product remains. This is the heroin that is used as a recreational drug.
What Does Heroin Do to You?
We’ve already mentioned that heroin provides a euphoric effect to its user. Those with heroin addiction have told us that as soon as they inject themselves, they feel happy and “untouchable,” as if nothing bad could ever happen. Then the world slows down, and they’ve described a feeling similar to that of being underwater.
But heroin causes some side effects, even for those who aren’t yet addicted. The drug can cause nausea and vomiting. Heroin addiction will also cause you to itch. Users have described the sensation as an itch under the skin, impossible to alleviate. It will slow your breathing and your heart rate, and taking too much can cause your heart and respiratory system to stop.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, once heroin enters the body, it’s converted to morphine and attaches to receptors in the brain. This is what causes the “rush” that users experience. It’s also the cause of a sense of heaviness, the nausea and the itching.
What heroin users describe as a “slowing” is actually a clouding of mental function due to the interaction of the drug with the brain. In some cases, this clouding can lead to coma, permanent brain damage and ultimately death.
Users usually consume heroin by injecting or sniffing it. It can be smoked as well, but this is less common. When a user injects heroin, he will use a needle inserted either into a vein or a muscle, or under the skin.
Heroin can also be used by sniffing it through the nose. This is the most common method used by younger users, partly due to the lack of availability of needles.
The immediate rush felt by users makes injection the most common mode of use, but it’s also by far the most dangerous. Heroin use and heroin addiction is far from safe. But the use of needles can increase the risk of infections like Hepatitis, HIV and AIDS. Use by injection will also be more likely to cause overdose, or to cause the body to be unable to recover from a “bad” or impure injection.
What Happens when you Snort Heroin
Snorting heroin is the preferred consumption method of younger heroin users. There’s little “equipment” required, and the powder form of heroin can be easily concealed in, for example, a car or a backpack.
When you snort heroin, the powder attaches itself to the mucous membranes in your nose and your throat. From that point, it works similarly to an injection. It’ll travel through your bloodstream and into your brain. After snorting heroin, a user will experience the same effects as with an injection. Slowed speech and actions, vomiting, shaking, hallucinations and diarrhea are a few of these symptoms.
Can You Smoke Heroin?
Smoking heroin is uncommon, but not impossible. The brown morphine pasted which is created as a byproduct of the production of heroin is smokable.
The white powder can be smoked as well. Users told us that the simplest way that they’d found to smoke heroin was by placing it on foil. Holding it over a flame and smoking the fumes through a straw or pen allowed them to smoke the drug.
Again, there’s no safe way to use heroin. But users may prefer to smoke the drug as it produces less trace of it in the blood. Others may have a fear of needles. There’s also a perception that smoking heroin is safer than injection. And while needle use is extremely dangerous, the immediate and long term effects of heroin use are the same regardless of the vehicle used.
How Easy is it to Overdose on Heroin?
Heroin can kill you the first time you use it. We want to make that clear. There’s no safe way to use heroin, and there’s no dosage which will guarantee your safety.
Because heroin is a depressant, it will almost immediately slow your brain function, your heart rate and your respiratory rate. Even as soon as the first time you use heroin, these systems can slow to the point of coma or death.
Heroin addiction carries other risks, as well. The drug is usually “cut” with other substances, including baking powder, sugar, or even the prescription drug Fentanyl. This makes it extremely dangerous, particularly should you inject it.
In short, it’s very easy to overdose on heroin, a risk that is constantly there is heroin addiction. And because it’s classified as a Schedule I drug, there’s no governing force to monitor what substances your heroin is cut with.
How Long Does Heroin Stay in Your System?
Tests for heroin are conducted in a few ways. Traces of the drug can be found in urine, hair, saliva and blood. Heroin will stay in your system much longer than other drugs, such as cocaine, but a few factors can affect this. Your age, height and weight will affect the drug’s presence in your system. So will the amount that you took and the purity of the dose.
Heroin has a very short half life of between 10 and 30 minutes. That means that after you use heroin, half of it is flushed from your system within 10 to 30 minutes. Because of this half life, saliva and blood tests aren’t typically used to detect heroin. Traces of heroin in blood and saliva are generally gone within about 5 hours.
That said, heroin use will affect your organs, and new developments in drug testing have been made. Traces of heroin can be found in your liver for much longer than they’ll be found in your hair or urine.
How Long Does Heroin Stay in your Urine?
The presence of heroin in urine can only be detected for about 2 days. Again, the drug has a very short half life, and is quickly flushed from your body.
Advances in drug testing have been made due to the fact that users have been able to “beat the system” by using laxatives and diuretics. These agents cause toxins to flush more quickly from the body, and can cause misleading drug test results.
How Long Does Heroin Stay in your Hair?
The presence of heroin in saliva, blood and urine is short lived. But by testing the hair, law enforcement or medical professionals can detect heroin for up to three months. As with any testing method, there are possible factors which could interfere with a hair test. In fact, users have been known to shave their heads to avoid testing.
While shaving your head may prove a great short term solution, it’s the hair follicle that’s going to give results. That is to say, just as soon as you can get a good grip on the hair, it can be tested. Additionally, body hair can be used to test for heroin.