Heroin is a member of the opiate family. Like other opioids, heroin is derived from the opium poppy plant. It may come as a surprise that heroin, despite being a notorious “street drug,” is part of the same drug family as perfectly legal prescription medications. Opioids like oxycodone, morphine, and fentanyl are often used in the treatment of pain. This is because opioids block pain signals to the brain.
While legal opioid painkillers are primarily prescribed to treat severe and chronic pain, heroin comes with a number of additional effects. When people consume heroin, they experience strong feelings of euphoria and pleasure, sometimes known as a “high.” These feelings are extremely addictive, leading people to abuse heroin uncontrollably. For this reason, heroin is classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a Schedule I controlled substance.
Heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid, meaning that it is not simply a natural byproduct of the opium poppy. Heroin is made out of morphine. However, when heroin reaches the brain, it actually changes back into morphine. At this point, it binds to opioid receptors that are located throughout the brain and spinal cord. All mammals have opioid receptors; they control feelings of pleasure and pain. When heroin activates opioid receptors, the centers of the brain that control mood and pleasure are altered.
This not only results in the typically euphoric feelings associated with a heroin high, it also affects the brain stem, which controls important automatic life-sustaining bodily functions, including breathing, blood pressure, and arousal. This obviously can have catastrophic consequences in the case of an overdose.
How Do People Use Heroin?
There are a variety of routes of administration for heroin. Heroin can be sniffed or snorted, in the same way that people traditionally use cocaine (it can also be mixed with cocaine, which increases the risks). Cocaine can also be smoked. The most notorious form of cocaine abuse occurs when a person injects the drug directly into their veins.
All of these routes of administration result in a heroin high, and all of them are dangerous. However, different routes of administration result in slightly different experiences, and the risks are somewhat different.
Many people avoid injecting heroin at first, because of the stronger stigma associated with that form of substance abuse, but most heroin addicts eventually turn to intravenous injection. This is because injecting heroin results in a stronger high, wastes less of the drug than smoking, and is the fastest way to experience the heroin high.
However, injecting heroin is the route of administration with the highest risk of a life-threatening overdose. Unsafe needle practices also increase the likelihood of a number of health problems, from collapsed veins to sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Other routes of administration pose slightly lower overdose risk. When people smoke heroin for instance, they can choose to stop at any time, whereas someone using a needle consumes their dose all at once. However, it is important to understand that smoking, snorting, or sniffing heroin is just as addictive as injecting it. In fact, some research suggests that smoking heroin, while less effective at producing a heroin high, is somewhat more addictive than injecting heroin.
Heroin is often also consumed alongside other substances. The practice of mixing heroin with crack cocaine or any stimulant is known as speedballing. Speedballing is extremely dangerous. Heroin, which is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, is inherently dangerous on its own. However, when this CNS depressant is combined with a CNS stimulant like crack cocaine, it can be too much for the body to handle. Engaging in polydrug abuse with heroin causes the risk of overdose to skyrocket.
Effects of Heroin Addiction
Heroin is an extremely potent opioid, which means that people experience the effects very quickly after consuming it. When heroin is broken down into morphine and binds to opioid receptors in the brain, the result is a variety of psychological and physical effects.
Many of these effects are experienced as pleasurable to heroin users. In this case, these effects are known as a “high.” However, it is important to understand that the short-term effects of heroin lead to a wide range of effects that are not all pleasurable — and many of which are extremely harmful. The long term effects of abusing heroin, it should also be noted, make it more difficult for a person to get high at all, and they also make it difficult for a person to function in their everyday life.
Common short-term effects of heroin abuse include:
- Warm flushing of the skin
- Extreme pleasure or euphoria
- Dry mouth
- Nausea and vomiting
- Heavy feeling in the arms and legs
- Clouded mental functioning
- Severe itching
- Going “on the nod” — a state during which one vacillates between being conscious and being semiconscious
Long term effects of abusing heroin include but are not limited to:
- Infection of the heart lining and valves
- Damaged tissue inside the nose (when it is snorted and sniffed)
- Collapsed veins (when it is injected)
- Abscesses (swollen tissue filled with pus)
- Irregular menstrual cycles (for women)
- Sexual dysfunction
- Mental disorders, including depression, anxiety, and antisocial personality disorder
- Lung complications, such as pneumonia
- Liver and kidney disease
- Constipation and stomach cramping
These physical effects of heroin are often disastrous enough, but the consequences of heroin abuse in a person’s life are often far more disastrous. We will be examining the broader consequences of heroin addiction later in this article.
What Does Heroin Look Like?
If you suspect that a close friend or family member is abusing heroin, it is important to be able to recognize the drug. Heroin is available in many different forms, and for this reason its appearance can differ wildly. The most common form of heroin is powder. This powder can vary in terms of its color: it is often white or brown.
The location where a specific batch of heroin comes from can affect its appearance. Heroin on the east coast of the United States is generally white or off-white, for instance. Powdered heroin that is whiter in color is generally purer heroin, compared to brown or off-white powdered heroin.
In recent years, however, a different form of heroin has achieved enormous popularity and success in the United States. This form of heroin, known as black tar heroin, is not a powder. Rather, it is a solid, sticky substance that is generally black in color. It is hard to the touch and tends to smell slightly like vinegar.
Sometimes known as sticky tar, black tar heroin is generally found on the west coast, though it has been rapidly spreading throughout the United States. Black tar heroin is often far cheaper than powdered heroin, and though its quality can vary considerably, it is extremely potent and therefore life-threatening.
Most heroin that is sold to users is not pure. Drug dealers and distributors generally cut their heroin with contaminants and drugs. This enables them to sell more heroin while saving money. Cutting heroin with other drugs, such as fentanyl or crack cocaine, can also increase the perceived potency of heroin. However, this practice also increases the risks of heroin abuse.
Heroin is commonly cut with a number of substances, such as:
- Laundry detergent
- Baking soda
- Rat poison
- Talcum powder
- White sugar
Many of these ingredients, such as fentanyl, can directly increase the risk of a life-threatening overdose. Others, such as rat poison and laundry detergent, are toxic substances with their own unique risk profiles. However, even seemingly harmless contaminants, such as caffeine, pose a number of risks. When people consume heroin alongside caffeine, for instance, they are often less able to detect a heroin overdose, and they may consume more heroin to counteract the stimulating effects of caffeine.
Heroin Street Names
Heroin goes under many names. Its chemical names are diacetylmorphine and diamorphine. However, heroin users and drug dealers often use a variety of street terms to refer to the drug. They do so for a number of reasons. People engaged in a heroin sale often use code names to avoid detection by law enforcement authorities. Users of recreational drugs are often part of a drug culture, where alternative names are a way of celebrating drug use. While the street names for heroin are ever-evolving and changing, we’ve listed a few of today’s most common street names below:
- Mexican black tar heroin
- Mexican tar
- Black tar
- White stuff
- White boy
- White girl
- White horse
- White lady
- White nurse
- Number 8
- Number 4
- Number 3
- Mexican horse
- Mexican mud
- Mexican brown
- China white
- Brown tape
- Brown sugar
- Brown rhine
- Brown crystal
- Black eagle
- Black staff
- Black pearl
- Black tar