Heroin is a highly addictive and illicit drug and is commonly sold in three different forms: white powder, brown powder, and black tar heroin. Each form of heroin consists of slightly different ingredients, but all are likely to have various other substances added. These can enhance the drug’s potency, in some cases making it even more dangerous than heroin is alone.
Heroin, or diamorphine, is made from morphine, the active ingredient that induces the drug effects, and generally includes other various “filler” ingredients. Some of these fillers are other opioids and share some of the psychoactive effects of heroin. Others are simply powders that look similar to the appearance of the heroin in which they are cut, such as baking soda. And in some instances, the add-ins are toxins that can produce lethal side effects.
Morphine is a potent painkiller synthesized from the sap of the seed pod of the opium poppy, known as opium. Morphine is an opioid alkaline from which heroin is derived. This opiate is the primary psychoactive ingredient in heroin, which causes the euphoric heroin high. It also gives heroin its addictive potential and produces a state of physical dependence among its users. The more heroin a person, the more they will need to ingest to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
When heroin is ingested and reaches the brain, it is converted back to morphine. Moreover, heroin is, in essence, a more addictive and potent form of morphine. Part of the reason for its increased ability to be habit-forming is that when administered using the most common method (injection), it reaches the brain faster and with more intensity than if the drug were consumed orally, smoked, or snorted.
White and Brown Powder Heroin
Further processing of black tar heroin and adulterating with lactose can produce brown powder heroin. The purest form is white powder heroin and is the salt form of the drug, also known as diacetylmorphine hydrochloride, although it will most often be laced with other white powders. These decrease the potency but increase the risk of contamination and vein damage if the drug is taken intravenously.
Black Tar Heroin
Black tar heroin looks similar to what its street name would imply—a sticky/tacky chunk of blackish brownish substance. It is produced by a crude process in which the opiate made is unrefined compared to pure-ish white powder heroin.
Black tar heroin’s popularity in the U.S. began in the 1970s because it is less expensive and easier to make than its lighter, powered cousin.
Fatalities related to synthetic opioid overdose have risen dramatically in the United States in the last decade. This is primarily due to the contamination of heroin and other drugs with illicitly-made fentanyl, an extremely potent painkiller, which is approximately 50 times stronger than heroin. In some cases, even a tiny amount may be enough to induce a life-threatening overdose.
Studies have shown that drug users are somewhat concerned about fentanyl being laced into their heroin. Most express openness to using test strips, which can be used to identify fentanyl in drug samples before ingesting and could better inform individuals about their exposure risk.
In addition to diamorphine and fentanyl, heroin may include various other street and prescription drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine (also known as a “speedball.” Although meth and cocaine are stimulants and heroin is a depressant, both classes of drugs can produce euphoric feelings. Dealers can often get away with combining any euphoria-producing psychoactive drug with heroin if available at a less expensive price.
Heroin can be illicitly manufactured in clandestine facilities or clandestine home labs by individuals. For this reason, there may be little or no way to know the point of origin that a heroin user buys or additional ingredients that have been added. It may contain contaminants that are byproducts of the manufacturing process, such as ammonia, acetic anhydride, calcium oxide, chloroform, and hydrochloric acid.
Anesthetics – Street heroin may also contain local anesthetics, such as xylocaine. Although anesthetics are used legally for medical and dental purposes, they carry risks, have side effects, and are also potential allergens, coming with additional risks of adverse health complications.
Fillers – Fillers are ingredients added to bulk up heroin so that dealers can increase their profit margins. Many of these are relatively benign substances, such as talcum powder, cornstarch, flour, powdered milk, and sugars. Other fillers can be harmful, however. For example, black tar heroin may be adulterated with black shoe polish or dirt. Quinine is sometimes added to white powder heroin for its bitter flavor.
It’s also possible for toxins to be added to heroin. Strychnine, which is used in rat poison, is one noxious ingredient sometimes combined with heroin.
Psychological symptoms of strychnine poisoning include anxiety, agitation, restlessness, and an increased propensity to be startled or alarmed.
Physical symptoms may include:
- Jaw tension
- Muscle pain and spasms
- Rigidity of the extremities
- Arching of neck and back
Sometimes it can be challenging to determine if an individual is just very high or having an overdose. If you have difficulty telling the difference, it is best to treat the situation like an overdose to ensure that the person’s life is saved.
If you are concerned that a person is getting too high, you mustn’t leave them alone. If the individual is still conscious, try to keep them awake and monitor their breathing after calling 911.
The following are signs of an overdose:
- Unresponsive to outside stimulus
- Awake, but unable to respond (stupor)
- Breathing is very slow, shallow, erratic, or has stopped
- In lighter-skinned people, the skin tone turns bluish purple
- For darker-skinned people, skin turns grayish or ashen
- Choking sounds are present, or a snore-like gurgling noise (also referred to as the “death rattle”)
- Their body is very limp
- Their face is pale, ashen, cold or clammy
- Fingernails and lips turn blue or purplish (cyanosis)
- Pulse (heart rate) is slow, erratic, or absent
If a person is making unfamiliar sounds while they are unconscious, it is worth trying to rouse him or her. Many loved ones of heroin users think the person was snoring and sleeping peacefully when, in fact, the individual was having an overdose. These situations are a missed opportunity to intervene and save a life.
Getting Help for Heroin Addiction
Heroin addiction has the potential to be a devastating, life-threatening disease that wreaks havoc on a person’s body and mind. It can also adversely affect loved ones close to him or her in a multitude of ways. Fortunately, heroin dependence, though incurable, can be treated, and persons with this condition can take back their lives and learn how to exist without the crutch of substance abuse.
Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery centers offer an intensive, integrated approach to addiction treatment and overall health and wellness. Our programs feature a wide variety of holistic and traditional therapeutic services, including psychotherapy, individual and family counseling, group support, psychoeducation, art and music therapy, mindfulness therapy, aftercare planning, and much more.