Heroin

Basic Facts and History

Heroin is a powerful opiate drug that is derived from the opium poppy plant. Morphine is the naturally occurring substance that heroin is the synthetic version of. Morphine has been used as for surgery and as an anethetic as far back as the 1800’s, although opium use can trace back to ancient China, where the seed pods were cooked into a sticky substance that was then smoked. Morphine, although carrying a potential for fatal overdose, is nonetheless the most powerful painkiller known to man, able to provide relief to terminally ill patients, people with cancer, and sufferers of chronic pain conditions in a safe way, under strictly controlled medical supervision. Morphine itself carries a high addiction risk, but in some estimates calculate that up to 25 percent of users of heroin become addicted.

Prescription drugs are frequently the gateway to heroin addiction, which is all consuming.

Heroin is typically available as a white or brown powder. Some users insufflate, or snort, the powder while others melt the substance into a liquid and then inject it intravenously. Street names for Heroin include: H, Smack, Dope, and Black Tar. Due to the extreme cravings and withdrawal symptoms that accompany heroin use, the demand for the drug is very high, and the potential for it to be combined with other drugs or cut with chemicals (to increase its volume and thus be more profitable to the drug sellers) is high as well.

The purity levels of heroin change rapidly from batch to batch and cannot be predicted. Tests are available so that a user might determine the strength of the drug, but they are not often used, so the potential for an accidental fatal overdose is very high.

Effects of Heroin Use

Heroin users who become addicted and use frequently find that their tolerance for the drug increases rapidly, requiring more and more heroin to achieve the same high. Users typically begin with a dose of 10 mg, but after long term addiction has begun and tolerance has been raised, the dosage can sometimes be up to a thousand times the dose that a user was ingesting when they first began.

Effects of the drug include:

  • Intense euphoria
  • Dry mouth
  • Feeling of numbness/warmness
  • Alternating states of sleep and wakefulness

Health risks associated with chronic heroin use include:

  • Extreme physical dependence
  • Liver and kidney damage
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Addiction
  • Collapsed veins
  • Extreme weight loss

Heroin Withdrawal

Heroin withdrawal can be fatal if a user attempts to quit cold turkey. Other chemically similar substances, such as methadone, have been created to help mitigate the risks of withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms can, depending on the severity of the addiction, begin 2 to 24 hours after the drug was last used. Withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Extreme physical dependence
  • Liver and kidney damage
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Addiction
  • Collapsed veins
  • Extreme weight loss

Summary

The health risks associated with heroin use are bad enough, but the potential for the spread of disease through needle sharing of intravenous users is extremely high. In the 80’s, before more preventative literature and clean needle exchanges were made widely available, the spread of AIDS and hepatitis C was extremely common through the sharing of needles by infected users. Clean needle programs have become more common in larger cities, but this does not mean the problem has gone away. Some European countries have adopted “Safe-Use” policies, offering free doses of heroin in a controlled, safe clinics in an attempt to curb crime and reduce deaths by overdose. Heroin is one of the most powerful narcotic drugs known today, and while its use has gone down since peaking in the late 1980’s, its high potential for addiction makes it a cash-crop for criminal organizations and a perpetual problem in virtually every country around the world.