Heroin is a narcotic drug and derivative of the legal prescription medication morphine. It is a member of a class of drugs called opioids, which are useful for medicinal purposes, but which can also be extremely addictive and dangerous. Heroin is considered to be the most dangerous and risky drug that a user can take. The only high that is more dangerous than heroin is that from a mixture of two or more drugs.
What is Heroin?
Heroin originates with the opium poppy. The flower has been cultivated for thousands of years for the substance called opium. A material called latex can be extracted from the fruit of the poppy flower. This is called opium and it has been used in medicine throughout history. It contains compounds called opioids, which act on the central and peripheral nervous systems and the gastrointestinal tract. It acts as a painkiller and also relieves diarrhea. A side effect of consuming opium is a feeling of euphoria. For this reason, opium eventually became a recreational drug as well as a medicinal one.
Opium is a mixture of substances, but the two that are most responsible for its effects on the body are morphine and codeine. In the 1800s, they were isolated from opium to be used as medicines. In 1874 an English chemist experimented with morphine to create a compound called diacetylmorphine. Diacetylmorphine is a morphine molecule with two acetyl functional groups attached to it. Later, chemists at Bayer synthesized diacetylmorphine and found that its effects were much more potent that morphine. They trademarked the compound and called it heroin. They marketed heroin as a painkiller and cough suppressant.
Today, heroin comes in different forms depending on where it was made, processed, and purchased. Pure heroin is a white powder that has a bitter taste. Nearly all heroin sold is cut with different substances to make different types like black, white, brown, and tar heroin. Substances mixed with pure heroin can include those that are benign as well as poisons. Heroin may be cut with starch, powdered milk, lactose, quinine, strychnine, and many other substances.
Where Does it Come From?
Heroin is synthesized from opium collected illegally from poppies. Poppy growers collect the opium by scoring the fruit. Latex seeps out of the cuts and hardens. Harvesters scrape off the latex and create bricks or balls of opium. Further chemical and mechanical processing isolates the morphine and converts it into diacetylmorphine, or heroin.
Most illegally grown opium poppies are in Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, and Mexico. Opium itself is not a very common recreational drug, although it was in the past. Most opium collected illegally is turned into heroin. Heroin superseded opium as a drug because it is more potent, gives a quicker high, and is lighter and easier to ship illegally. Afghanistan produces most of the world’s heroin, making 87 percent of all that is consumed. Mexico’s production of heroin, however, has been increasing drastically over the last decade.
How is it Used?
Heroin can be administered in several ways, but injection is most common. To inject heroin, a user must mix it with water and an acid like lemon juice, and then heat it. Without the acid and heat, heroin will not dissolve. Injecting heroin into a vein is the most common way to use the drug because it creates the quickest high by getting directly into the bloodstream.
Heroin can also be ingested. When consumed this way, heroin is quickly metabolized into morphine, which means that the high is much reduced compared to injecting it. A third method for taking in heroin is smoking, often called “chasing the dragon.” Heroin is heated in a glass pipe or on a piece of aluminum foil and the vapors are then inhaled.
Heroin may also be snorted through the nose. It is then absorbed into the bloodstream through the mucous membranes inside the nose. Some users snort to avoid the hassles of injection. Finally, heroin can be used in a suppository form, which supplies a high equivalent to injecting.
What Are the Signs of Heroin Addiction?
Heroin use is extremely dangerous and addictive. There is a very real possibility of overdosing and dying after just one use of heroin. Addiction is also very likely after just one use. Depending on the method of use, there are a variety of signs to look for in someone you suspect is using heroin.
• Signs of any type of drug abuse include changes in behavior and attitude, sudden financial problems, issues at work or a lost job, neglect of relationships, and loss of interest in activities.
• Physical effects of heroin use include weight loss, runny nose and eyes, apathy, lethargy, constricted pupils, and excessive sleeping. If heroin is being injected, needle marks should be visible on the body, often on arms, legs, or between toes.
• Psychological effects of heroin include paranoia, recklessness, confusion, hostility, and extreme lethargy.
• Heroin use often requires paraphernalia. Needles, syringes, aluminum foil, lighters, and small stamp pouches are things you might see in the possession of a heroin user.
What are the Consequences of Using Heroin?
Consequences of using heroin are often very severe. It is not difficult to overdose on heroin and death is a real possibility any time someone gets high using heroin. In addition to overdose, heroin use causes many, many health problems. Users who inject run the risk of getting infectious diseases. They often do not consider the risks of sharing needles when using and this is a major way of transmitting HIV and hepatitis. Injecting heroin also causes veins to collapse.
Using heroin repeatedly by any method can cause infections in the heart valves and lining, abscesses, kidney and liver disease or failure, and pneumonia. Because heroin can be cut with any variety of substances, many toxic, all kinds of damage to organs is possible. Pregnant women who use heroin run the risk of birth defects and low birth weight. Their babies are also likely to be born with heroin dependence.
Withdrawal symptoms of heroin use are especially severe compared with other drugs, except for barbiturates. When users do not get heroin, symptoms that kick in range from diarrhea and insomnia to cold flashes and muscle twitches. Very heavy heroin users have been known to die from very severe withdrawal. Because of the seriousness of withdrawal, treatment often involves using methadone, a substitute for heroin to wean the addict from the drug.
When to Help
As soon as you suspect that someone you know is using heroin, intervention is necessary. Death is a real possibility with its use and even if death is not the result, getting over heroin addiction is extremely difficult. There are treatment options and medications that can be used to help someone recover from this addiction. If you notice signs of overdose in someone, get emergency help immediately. These include difficult and slow breathing, very small pupils, dry mouth, a discolored tongue, stomach spasms and constipation, a weak pulse, blue lips and fingernails, disorientation, and muscle spasms.