Heroin (diacetylmorphine) is an opioid analgesic created by synthesizing morphine molecules found in the opium poppy. While there are some legitimate medical uses for heroin, the drug is classified as a Schedule I narcotic under the Controlled Substances Act and is illegal to possess without a DEA license.
Historically, it was marketed as a non-addictive morphine substitute from 1898 through to 1910. By 1924 the sale, manufacture, or importation of the drug was banned and rendered illegal due to its powerfully addictive properties.
The drug is primarily used for recreational purposes for the feeling of intense euphoria it gives users. In its purest form, heroin is a fine white powder. When it’s cut with other substances, the drug is sold as a pinkish-white, gray, or beige powder, but may also be sold as a brown or black tar.
The substance can be injected directly into the vein, sniffed, or smoked. It can also be eaten or administered as a suppository, although these two methods are less common in users.
Tolerance to the drug develops quickly in users, requiring higher doses to achieve the same effects. Taking higher doses of the drug increases the risk of overdose significantly.
Some common street names for heroin include smack, H, horse, junk, skag, brown sugar, China White, Mexican Brown, tar or mud. Though “dope” can be used to refer to a wide range of illegal drugs, it generally is used by street drug users to refer to heroin specifically.
In its pure form, heroin is a white powder. It is rarely sold pure on the streets, however, and will usually be discolored to a darker shade due to the addition of various substances ranging from sugar to pesticides.
Heroin is prescribed in some countries for a very limited range of medical uses. When prescribed it is referred to as diacetylmorphine or diamorphine.
While heroin can technically be a prescription drug, it is relatively rare for it to be prescribed. It is an opiate drug (derived from the opium poppy) and is used medically as a painkiller and sometimes in the treatment of recovering addicts.
The DEA lists heroin as a Schedule I drug. This puts it among the most addictive and dangerous of the illicit drugs. It is thought to have a very high potential for abuse and the development of physical dependence.
Heroin is most commonly injected as this renders it more potent to the user and causes a faster onset of effects. In can also be smoked and snorted. Oral administration is relatively rare as it is not metabolized well this way. It has also been taken by way of a suppository, though there is little research on this route of administration.
As with the other opiate drugs, heroin has a powerful painkilling effect. It differs in that it induces a much stronger sense of euphoria than many of the legal opiate painkillers, however.
The greatest danger of short-term use is overdose. Since recreational heroin is almost always obtained on the street, the exact strength of it is very difficult to determine.
Users often get dry mouth and a feeling of slugishness immediately after using. They also often experience extreme drowsiness when beginning to come down from a high and will “nod out”, or fall asleep suddenly. Death by overdose usually occurs due to respiratory depression during this period. Other negative symptoms that may occur include nausea, vomiting, and itchy skin.
Long-term use can cause brain damage, particularly affecting the areas used in stress response, management of behavior and decision-making. Chronic insomnia and constipation are common to long-term users. Those that shoot up also often have scarred or collapsed veins, boils and are at an elevated risk for cardiovascular infections and disease.
Coma or death due to overdose are always a serious risk every time the drug is taken. Users are also at risk from the unknown substances that are often used to “cut” heroin sold on the street, some of which can be highly toxic and dangerous to health.
Heroin is sometimes mixed with other drugs, but almost every combination is extremely dangerous. The most notorious combination is a “speedball”, a combination of cocaine and heroin that has killed a number of high-profile celebrities.
Mixing it with other “downers” like alcohol increases the risk for death by respiratory depression, while mixing it with stimulant “uppers” causes the effects of the heroin to be masked and makes it easier to accidentally overdose.
Heroin has led to one of the biggest drug problems in the United States. Surveys by agencies such as the National Survey on Drug Use and Health have estimated that there could be as many as a million users of it in the country. The soaring rates of heroin use are thought to be tied to the over-prescription of opiate pain pills — when pain pill abusers run their prescriptions out or can no longer afford pills, they turn to cheap and more readily available heroin on the street.
Opiate abuse is responsible for almost 20% of admissions to drug treatment centers in America, with heroin use making up the majority of these admissions. Heroin overdose deaths have also increased dramatically in the past decade, shooting from less than 2,000 in 2001 to almost 9,000 in 2013, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Since heroin is one of the most addictive drugs, a period of detox followed by some amount of inpatient treatment is necessary. The length of this treatment can vary greatly depending on the severity of the addiction, but usually falls in the range of 30 to 90 days. At the end of inpatient treatment, addicts also often find it helpful to move into a clean and sober living environment, and they may also take a maintenance drug such as methadone to help control cravings. For more information on addiction treatment visit Heroin Rehab.
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