Heroin (chemical name diacetylmorphine) was first synthesized in the late 1800s by chemists who were altering the structure of morphine, a natural painkiller produced by the seed pods of the opium poppy plant. One scientist working at the Bayer drug company in Germany tested this altered form of morphine on the Bayer workforce. When the workers reported that the new drug made them feel heroisch (German for "heroic"), the company named the drug "heroin". Heroin is stronger than morphine and until 1910, Bayer sold heroin as a non-addictive painkiller and cough suppressant. It was then discovered that the human body converts heroin to morphine, and that heroin (like morphine) is highly addictive.
Although the medical use of heroin has largely (but not completely) disappeared, some people use heroin simply for enjoyment because it causes
- an intense surge of pleasure (a "rush")
- profound relaxation
- reduced anxiety
Other sensations produced by heroin include
- warm flushing of the skin
- dry mouth
- heaviness in the arms and legs
- decreased sensitivity to pain
- cough suppression
- inability to concentrate
- decreased appetite
Effects on the body: Heroin is a nervous system depressant that causes
- decreased heart rate
- slow breathing
- decreased blood pressure
- lowered body temperature
- small pupils
Common street names: Black tar, smack, junk, H, horse, skag, skunk, smack, crank, jive, thunder.
How is heroin used? Heroin can be injected, smoked, or snorted. Injecting heroin creates a high risk of overdose because the drug is delivered to the brain so quickly and efficiently.
Risk of addiction: Very high (and withdrawal is extremely difficult and agonizing). If heroin use for as little as a few days is abruptly stopped, withdrawal symptoms can occur. This is much quicker than with most other addictive drugs. Withdrawal symptoms include drug craving, restlessness, insomnia, cold sweats, chills with goose bumps ("cold turkey"), kicking movements ("kicking the habit"), severe muscle and bone aches, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and severe itching.
Overdose: High doses of heroin cause severely impaired breathing, extremely small ("pinpoint") pupils, a cold and clammy feel to the skin, low blood pressure, slowed heart beat, extreme drowsiness, loss of consciousness, convulsions, coma, and death.
How is heroin produced? Most heroin is produced by criminal "chemists" who first extract morphine from opium, a milky white fluid produced by the seed pods of the opium plant. The morphine is then treated with a common industrial acid, acetic anhydride. The acetic anhydride attaches to the morphine molecule to form diacetylmorphine (heroin).
Can heroin be used legally? Heroin use is illegal in the United States. However, doctors in England can prescribe heroin for the control of severe pain and have found it to be very effective with terminally ill cancer patients.
How quickly and how long does heroin act? The effects of heroin are felt within seconds when the drug is injected or smoked and take about 15 minutes to be felt when it is snorted. The effects usually persist for 2 to 6 hours. People who are addicted begin to crave more heroin about 4 to 6 hours after their last dose.
Drug tests for heroin: Heroin is converted to morphine in the user's body, and the morphine can then be detected in the urine for up to 4 days. The presence of morphine in the urine can also be caused by the use of other drugs, such as codeine and morphine itself. Testing urine for 6-acetylmorphine, a breakdown product of heroin, is more conclusive evidence of recent heroin use. However, 6-acetylmorphine is only detectable in urine for a few hours after heroin use.
How many students use heroin? Less than 1% of high school seniors say they have used heroin within the past year.