Heroin Addiction

Heroin is an illegal drug (in America) that is not used in any medical circumstance due to its highly addictive nature.

Last updated: June 1, 2018
Poppy plants

What is Heroin?

Heroin can take many forms. It’s most pure form is a “powder” that can appear white or brown – both colors are additional alias for the drug.

The powder can be snorted or smoked. Usually, first-time users prefer this method due to the stigma around needles, i.e. higher risk of contracting infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis, as well as greater likelihood to overdose.

Impure heroin or “Black Tar Heroin” is a sticky substance that’s the result of poor processing. Instead of pure, fine powder, the processing left behind impurities and the end result is a black, sticky substance similar to coal or tar (hence the name). In this state it is usually diluted or dissolved and then taken by either intravenous or intramuscular injection.

Due to injections circulating throughout the whole body rapidly, the high is usually more potent and it requires less to reach that high. Plus, because black tar heroin is full of impurities, the IV route is usually cheaper.

What is in Heroin?

Heroin is an opiate derived from the poppy plant.

The opium from the plant is then refined to create morphine. From there it’s processed with a variety of other chemicals including acetone and acetic anhydride, although, being a street drug, the substance is usually cut with a host of other ingredients, such as sugars, starch, quinine, powdered milk and other street drugs.

The most common street drug cut with heroin is cocaine. The use of this combination is called speedballing and the resulting substance can be snorted or injected. As heroin is a depressant and cocaine is a stimulant, the effects can be extremely deleterious to the mind and body.

What are Other Names for Heroin?

  • Big H
  • Horse
  • Dope
  • Junk
  • Skag
  • Mud
  • Hell Dust
  • Smack
  • Brown

What Happens When You Use Heroin?

Once heroin reaches the brain, it converts the enzymes into morphine and rapidly binds to opioid receptors. What this does is decrease body’s perception of pain and increases the amount of dopamine generated. The amount of dopamine produced can be ten times more than the body naturally produces thereby creating that “high” or euphoria – as an aside, this is usually what causes the “rush” sensation.

The effects of heroin are felt almost instantaneously – within minutes – and the effects can last for 4 to 5 hours.

Most Heroin Addicts Started With Opiates

Heroin is an opiate derived from the poppy plant – same as morphine. This means it’s in the same family as prescribed pain medication and it’s how many people end up addicted to heroin. Most heroin addicts started by abusing prescribed opiates.

Many doctors prescribe opiates and pain relievers for a slew of surgeries, accidents, prep and recovery. For a long time, many opiates were considered non-addictive and it’s resulted in an opioid crisis. The problem with opiates is they are extremely effective as they are addictive, making it incredibly hard to stop.

Typically, prescribed medications are more difficult to attain due to the inflated cost and doctors’ signatures (like OxyContin and Vicodin). As a result, many resort to the cheaper street drugs, like heroin. In 2014, a study found that over half of IV heroin users were abusing prescription opiates first.

History of Heroin

Heroin is a mixture of morphine and codeine at its core, but is usually cut with other additives or opiates. Opium is derived from the poppy plant which was first cultivated in Southwest Asia as far back as 3400 BCE. It was traded and spread throughout the Silk road and, but when Britain fought for control over the East India Company, many began smuggling Indian opium into China and this is what led to the Opium Wars in the mid-1800s. As a consequence of this, many Chinese immigrated to America to work on the railroads, thus bringing smokable opium to the United States.

The attributes of opium have been known for quite some time with Paracelsus making an opium elixir in 1522. However, it was when “morphine” was discovered in the 1800s that opioid addiction came to prominence.

The Discovery of Morphine

German scientist, Dr. Friedrich Serturner was the first to separate morphine (an active alkaloid) from the opium poppy plant and in 1817 ran numerous experiments with the alkaloid on himself and others. Everyone he administered the drug to almost died, causing Serturner to name the compound “Morphium” after the Greek god, Morpheus (the god of dreams), due to its potent ability to put people to sleep. It was during this time that Dr. Serturner decided to sell the drug as a pain medication, marketing it as a cure for alcoholism – which was much more severe at the time.

By the 1830s, many were using morphine to help people deal with severe pain from surgeries or other accidents. This became far more common during the American Civil War in which soldiers were given morphine and it was quickly discovered just how addictive it was.

In 1874, diamorphine was synthesized by chemist, C.R. Alder Wright. He combined morphine with various acids. However, not much more was done with his compound. Another chemist, working independently of Wright, Felix Hoffmann developed diamorphine working at Bayer (a pharmaceutical company). Hoffmann’s goal was to create a codeine from acetylated morphine; essentially, he was tasked with creating a less addictive, less potent pain killer. The result was something almost twice as potent.

The Discovery of Heroin

Although not the first to invent heroin, Bayer named the substance and began the process of commercializing it. German chemist, Felix Hoffmann, and his supervisor, Heinrich Dreser, created “heroin,” a drug twice as powerful as morphine despite trying to do the opposite. Allegedly the term “heroin” was coined by the head of Bayer’s research department, derived from the German word “heroisch” meaning “heroic.”

In 1895, Bayer was marketing diamorphine under the brand name Heroin. Heroin was an over-the-counter drug advertised as a cough suppressant and an alternative to morphine. In fact, Bayer claimed heroin would cure morphine addiction – much like how morphine was claimed to cure opium addiction, and opium was claimed to cure alcoholism.

The sale of heroin continued into the early 1900s, but in 1914, the United States passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act to better control the sale and distribution of opioids. It was another 10 years before America banned the sale, manufacturing, and importation of heroin in 1924.

To help combat heroin addiction, German scientists developed methadone – another drug claiming to be non-addictive – in 1937. It was used until 1947 when it became clear that methadone was as addictive, if not more so, than heroin.

Heroin Today

Heroin is now a Schedule 1 type drug meaning it has no justifiable medical use an is extremely illegal.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2002 and 2013, the rate of heroin-related deaths has nearly quadrupled and almost half (45%) of users were also addicted to prescription opioids.

Today (2018), America is in an opioid crisis including prescription drugs, heroin, and fentanyl. Altogether it’s contributed to an $80 billion economic burden. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) are working on new strategies to combat this problem.


Want someone to talk to?

Online therapy can break the cycle and turn negative thoughts into positive ones.

Get Started

How to build new habits

I Am Sober is an app that helps you get some control back in your life.