Heroin (diamorphine hydrochloride) is produced by processing raw opium, a natural substance found in oriental opium poppies. It's a depressant drug so its properties are basically the opposite of a stimulant drug, such as amphetamine. Because heroin is a "narcotic analgesic", it numbs the brain and body and kills pain.
How heroin works
As a depressant drug, heroin dulls the central nervous system:
- the heart beats more slowly
- breathing slows down and becomes shallower, so less oxygen is taken in
- blood pressure falls.
The heroin effect
The heroin effect is big - bigger than almost any other drug. It's a really powerful feeling that has no comparison in normal life. When heroin is injected intravenously, the "hit" is almost instantaneous, but even when it's smoked it only takes a few seconds.
- Feelings of euphoria and waves of incredible well-being flood in. All pain - physical and mental - disappears.
- The addictive effect is that you really love yourself.
- In small quantities heroin makes people very talkative, energized, impassioned and confident.
- Larger quantities send people into a trance-like state - they lose themselves in an interior world and they can't and don't want to communicate with anyone.
- The initial "rush" is followed by a mellow, chilled-out feeling that makes the world look rosy.
- The heroin effect starts to wear off after 1-2 hours, depending on tolerance levels and how often it's used. It will have worn off completely after anything from 3-6 hours.
Heroin comes in three forms: brown, china white and pharmaceutical heroin.
- The most common form, this is in fact diamorphine base - the hydrochloride bit has been removed.
- It's a brown powder, although the colour can vary from creamy white to dark coffee. The lighter the colour, the higher the heroin content.
- Brown is low-grade, messy, dirty stuff. The heroin content varies from 10 to 60 per cent. The rest is rubbish, "cut" with the heroin to bulk out the quantity.
- Brown is smoked - it should never be injected.
- Found as grey granules that look a little like instant coffee.
- Although china white is smoked, it can also be injected.
Pure heroin for medical use, it comes as a pure white powder or tablets, or as ampoules of clear liquid.
Heroin has a long history. The first source was opium from poppies around 6000 BC; the Greeks recorded opium addiction in the third century BC. The Chinese first inhaled it in the 17th century. In 16th-century Europe, Paracelsus invented laudanum - an opium-based medicine that was used for painkilling and sedation well into the 19th century, until morphine was developed. A more powerful variant, diamorphine (heroin), appeared in Germany in 1874 and by the 1930s it had overtaken opium as the cheaper narcotic.
HEROIN AND METHADONE KILL AROUND 200 PEOPLE EVERY YEAR IN THE UK
- The syringe and any other paraphernalia (the works) must be sterile - and a fresh needle used every time.
- Used needles should be disposed of safely - never leave them lying around.
- Needle exchanges supply sterile needles. Local health authorities or the National Drugs Helpline will have details of the nearest needle exchange. Never share someone else's works - that's how infections like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C are spread.
Don't on any account take a "speedball", a mixed injection of heroin and cocaine. It's very dangerous as the two drugs worsen each other's effects.
A smack in the face
Overdosing If you're not used to taking heroin, overdosing is a real possibility - especially if you're injecting. When you've overdosed, your breathing slows right down and breaths become so shallow that your body doesn't get enough oxygen. Unconsciousness follows and if you don't get to a hospital quickly, your breathing may stop altogether and you'll die.
Nausea and vomiting First-time users could easily be sick and if you pass out, there's a real risk that you could choke on your vomit.
Self-neglect If you're an addict, heroin quickly becomes the only thing in your life. You lose weight and become malnourished because you don't eat, and you look even worse because you can't be bothered to wash. But you won't care about any of this - getting your next hit will be the only thing that matters.
Abscesses, sores and open wounds With heavy use, these develop at injection sites - they're unattractive and very painful. Crime Often the only way to pay for a habit is to steal, and addicts will steal from just about anywhere. Some are so desperate they even steal from their own families. Crime only leads to one place - prison.
- Known as "chasing the dragon" or "booting", this method is far less dangerous than injecting and gives a similar hit - it's intense and felt very quickly.
- Heroin is occasionally smoked in a pipe or hand-rolled cigarette, or heated from below on tin-foil.
Injecting heroin - the dangers
- Injecting directly into the vein is the most dangerous way of taking heroin. It must be made into a liquid first. China white and pharmaceutical heroin will dissolve in water. Brown has to be dissolved in an acid - dissolved vitamin C powder is the least dangerous.
- Dissolving crushed tablets is even worse. It leaves undissolved grains that cause blockages in small blood vessels, leading to abscesses and infection. To try to prevent this some users draw the liquid into a syringe through a cigarette filter - this doesn't make it safe
Stay out of trouble
Heroin is dangerous: you can't guarantee your safety, but the risks can be lowered.
Don't inject Smoking provides a similar hit and is far safer. NEVER share needles.
Don't leave needles lying around Dispose of them safely.
Know what you're taking There's no time for regrets if you overdose.
Don't top up You'll overdose.
Know your limits Tolerance drops if heroin isn't used for a while, so a "normal" quantity could kill.
Be sensible Don't drive, ride a bike or use machinery while on heroin.
Practise safe sex There's even more reason to use a condom because of the high incidence of HIV/AIDS among users
Never mix heroin with other drugs. Heroin is so powerful on its own that the addition of any other drug can kill..
THE COMFORT FROM HEROIN IS TEMPORARY- REALITY WILL SOON HIT HARD
Signs of addiction
- You're on a slippery slope if: you find it hard to get to sleep
- you get pains in your muscles
- you feel very sick and constipated.
Some people blame their dependency on their "addictive personality". There's no such thing: it's just an excuse to avoid looking at the real reasons behind their drug dependency.
Users quickly gain a tolerance to heroin so the body learns to cope with it and needs more to feel the original euphoric rush.
- Eventually, it can get to the stage where even high doses merely take away the pain and craving - there is no euphoria.
- BUT if you stop using heroin, tolerance falls quickly. If you start again, your body won't be able to cope with the same amount and you could overdose.
- Smoking heroin keeps tolerance at a more even level than if it's injected.
Kicking the habit
If you're dependent on heroin, it'll be difficult to come off it. BUT it isn't a lost cause. Many people have given it up - you can too. First you've got to accept certain things:
- only you can do your detox - others just help
- you have to want to come off
- do it for yourself - nobody else matters.
No-one should kick heroin by themselves; if you or someone you know has a heroin habit, get professional help. Remember that all drug agencies and medical services will treat your case in complete confidence. The first few days are the hardest. Once you're through them, hang in there. You've got this far, you can pull it off.
STAYING OFF HEROIN
This is the toughest part.
Keep busy Get a job or do community work. Take up hobbies.
Stay away from anything that reminds you of heroin Steer clear of other users and places where there are drugs.
Get support When your will-power is slipping, talk to someone: friends, family or professional drug organizations.
Heroin and addiction
Heroin is severely addictive: users can develop a physical and psychological dependency on the drug, despite having been sure they could stay in control. The less stable and good your life is, the greater the chance of becoming addicted to the warmth and detachment from reality that heroin brings.
What it's like to be addicted
- Your body needs heroin just to feel normal.
- Your physical craving becomes so strong that your whole life revolves around finding the money and the drugs for your next hit.
- The psychological craving is as strong as the physical. You're terrified of being without heroin. You end up more fearful of life and more isolated with a heroin habit than you ever were before you got one.
Heroin is a Class A drug. It's illegal all over the world and having, using or supplying it are seen as very serious offenses everywhere.
- The penalty is sometimes a very long prison sentence and a fine.
- In some countries, possessing or supplying heroin may even carry the death penalty.
If something goes wrong
hitting an artery
If you hit an artery when injecting, staunch the flow of blood by applying firm pressure over the injury, holding the limb as high as possible. Call an ambulance or go straight to the hospital Accident and Emergency department.
If your friend is breathing, place her in the recovery position. Call an ambulance. Tell the medical staff what your friend has taken - it could save her life.
- Be prepared to resuscitate your friend if she stops breathing.
- If your friend is sick while unconscious check that she's still breathing.