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Heroin and Heroin Addiction


Drug Class: Opiates

Heroin abuse can lead to high psychological and physical dependence

As with other opioids, heroin (diacetylmorphine, also diamorphine) is used as both a pain killer and a recreational drug of abuse. Frequent administration produces tolerance and physical dependence which often develops into full-blown addiction. Internationally, diacetylmorphine is controlled under Schedules I and IV of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. It is illegal to manufacture, possess, or sell diacetylmorphine without a license in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Iran, India, the Netherlands, the United States, Australia, Canada, Ireland, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom.

The Addictive Nature of Heroin


Heroin is a morphine derivative and an extremely addictive opiate. Millions of people worldwide struggle with heroin addiction and the dangers of relapse. Opiates in general are considered the hardest class of drugs for addicts to recover from long-term, but heroin addiction treatment is widely available. In the United States, it’s estimated 1.5% of the population has tried heroin, and a whopping 23% of those Americans will become addicted.

The most recently available survey from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports found that in 2008 some 3.8 million Americans aged 12 or older reported trying heroin at least once – that’s 1.5% of all Americans age 12 and up.

What Heroin Looks Like

Common Street Names for Heroin

  • Birdie Powder
  • Black
  • Black Pearl
  • Black Tar
  • Boy
  • Brown Sugar
  • China White
  • Chiva
  • Dope
  • Dragon
  • H
  • Hero
  • Horse
  • Junk
  • Mexican Brown
  • Mexican Horse
  • Mr. Brownstone
  • Mud
  • Number 2
  • Pluto
  • Scat
  • Skag
  • Skunk
  • Smack
  • Snow
  • White Stuff
  • Witch Hazel

Heroin Sources and Legislation

While Colombia and Mexico are estimated to only supply about 4% of the world’s opium supply, it is believed that majority of heroin found in the United States is produced there. Other primary producers are Burma/Myanmar, and Afghanistan. In 2007, Afghanistan was the world’s largest opium supplier (accounting for 93% of the world’s opium, according to United Nations estimates).

Heroin was, in fact, commonly found in medicine in the early 1900s, after having been discovered in 1874. Until the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914, which controlled the substance, its addictive properties were not well known or clearly understood.

Heroin Use: What a Heroin High is Like, and the Negative Effects

Users turn to heroin for the intense and almost immediate sense of euphoria it’s widely known for. Heroin can be ingested by needle injection, sniffed/snorted up the nasal passages, or smoked. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse:

“Typically, a heroin abuser may inject up to four times a day. Intravenous injection provides the greatest intensity and most rapid onset of euphoria (7 to 8 seconds), while intramuscular injection produces a relatively slow onset of euphoria (5 to 8 minutes). When heroin is sniffed or smoked, peak effects are usually felt within 10 to 15 minutes.”

No matter how it’s ingested, heroin is extremely addictive, and statistically, 23% of all users will develop addiction.

Heroin creates a warming sensation in the skin and dramatically slows a user’s breathing and heartbeat. Many heroin users in the middle of a high also experience alternating ups and downs, feeling extremely alert and then dozing off. Heroin has severe negative effects including:

  • Addiction, with an estimated 23% of heroin users becoming dependent
  • Painful withdrawal symptoms that can begin within hours of the last dose
  • Injuries resulting from engaging in any activity (working, driving, or operating machinery) when high on heroin
  • Loss of concentration – addicts are often unable to learn or hold a job
  • Apathy and indifference – addicts find it difficult to maintain personal relationships
  • Hepatitis, AIDS, and other diseases and infections acquired from dirty needles used to inject the heroin
  • Dry, itchy skin and skin infections
  • Constricted pupils and reduced night vision
  • Nausea and vomiting after early use or high doses
  • Constipation and loss of appetite
  • Menstrual irregularity
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Irregular blood pressure
  • Slow and irregular heartbeat
  • Pneumonia
  • Decreased liver function
  • Abscesses
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Scarring (“tracks”) along veins and collapsed veins from repeated injections
  • Fatigue, breathlessness, and labored, noisy breathing due to fluid in the lungs (commonly called “the rattles”)
  • Stroke or heart attack caused by blood clots induced by heroin additives
  • Respiratory paralysis, heart attack, coma, and death from accidental overdose

Heroin’s Prevalence in Student and Prisoner Populations

A 2008 study from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found 3.8 million Americans age 12 or older tried heroin at least once. About 453,000 reported using heroin in the last year and 213,000 used it in the last month.

In 2007 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) surveyed U.S. high school students in its Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) and found 2.3% reported having used heroin at least once.

The 2008 Monitoring the Future study surveyed students and found the following heroin-use rates:

  • 1.4% of 8th graders had used heroin at least once,
  • 1.2% of 10th graders had used heroin at least once, and
  • 1.3% of 12th graders had used heroin at least once.
  • The same 2008 study asked if obtaining heroin was “fairly easy” or “very easy”:
  • 13.3% of 8th graders said it was;
  • 17.2% of 10th graders agreed;
  • More than a quarter of all high school seniors (25.4%) said so.

Heroin and criminal offenses

Heroin use strongly correlates with criminal activity. Some of the hallmarks of addiction – whether it’s drugs or shopping – is interference with money management, lack of control, and actions that are out of character, such as theft. The Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring II shows a consistently high frequency of heroin use among arrestees. Arrestees in various study sites who admit heroin use report that they’re using heroin at least 15 days a month.

In 2004, nearly a quarter of all state prisoners and approximately 18% of federal prisoners reported having tried heroin or opiates, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

There is no cure for heroin addiction – only treatment, including counseling, therapy, and support. Treatment provides tools to abstain when faced with stressors, triggers, and the temptation. Learn more about heroin addiction and treatment.


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