Heroin Facts
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Heroin Facts

Heroin Facts: What is Heroin?

  • Heroin is a highly addictive and rapidly acting opiate (a drug that is derived from opium). Specifically, heroin is produced from morphine, which is a principal component of opium. Opium is a naturally occurring substance that is extracted from the seedpod of the opium poppy.
  • Street heroin is rarely pure. A "bag," or single dose, may contain 50 milligrams of powder. In the past, very few of those milligrams were likely to be heroin. Most of the bag was filled with such additives as milk, sugar, powdered milk, or quinine. In 1980, the average bag was only 4 percent pure heroin. By the mid-Nineties, however, purity was generally 40 percent or higher. In the Northeast, purity commonly ranges between 60 and 75 percent.
  • Street names for heroin include "smack," "H," "skag," and "junk.” Other names may refer to types of heroin produced in a specific geographical area, such as "Mexican black tar."
  • Heroin is most commonly found as a white or brown powder.

Heroin Facts: How do people use heroin?

  • Heroin is a highly addictive drug and its use is a serious problem in America. Recent studies suggest a shift from injecting heroin to snorting or smoking because of increased purity and the misconception that these forms of use will not lead to addiction.
  • Heroin users who inject the drug expose themselves to additional risks including contracting human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis B and C, and other blood-borne viruses. Chronic users who inject heroin also risk scarred or collapsed veins, infection of the heart lining and valves, abscesses, pneumonia, tuberculosis, liver disease, and kidney disease.
  • In some areas, "shabanging" has increased in popularity. This involves picking up cooked heroin with a syringe and squirting it up the nose. Street heroin carries prophetic names: "DOA," "Body Bag," "Instant Death," and "Silence of the Lamb." Rather than scaring off young initiates, the implied danger seems to actually increase the drug's allure.

Heroin Facts: Who’s Using Heroin?

  • According to the 1998 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, which may actually underestimate illicit opiate (heroin) use, an estimated 2.4 million people have used heroin at some time in their lives.
  • In the mid-Nineties, it seemed heroin was suddenly staging a comeback. The reality, however, was that heroin had never left. While overall drug use in the United States dropped sharply through the Eighties, heroin use remained relatively steady. During the Nineties, it started to rise as the addict population grew and changed. Heroin on the street became more pure, the price stayed the same, and more young and middle-class Americans began using the drug.
  • In 1996, it was reported that heroin was the primary drug of abuse related to drug abuse treatment admissions in Newark, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Boston. It ranked a close second to cocaine in New York and Seattle.
  • The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) collects data on drug-related hospital emergency room episodes and drug-related deaths from 21 metropolitan areas. Data from 1995 ranks heroin as the second most frequently mentioned drug in overall drug-related deaths. From 1990 through 1995, the number of heroin-related episodes doubled. Between 1994 and 1995, there was a 19 percent increase in heroin related emergency department episodes.

Heroin Facts: What are the effects of this drug?

  • All heroin users, not just those who inject the drug, risk becoming addicted. Individuals who abuse heroin develop a tolerance for the drug over time. This means that they must use increasingly larger doses to achieve the same intensity or effect they experienced when they first began using. Heroin ceases to produce feelings of pleasure in users who develop tolerance. Instead, these users must continue taking the drug simply to feel normal. Addicted individuals who stop using the drug may experience withdrawal symptoms which include heroin craving, restlessness, muscle and bone pain, and vomiting.
  • Both new and experienced users risk overdosing on heroin because it is impossible for them to know the purity of the heroin they are using. Heroin sold on the street is often mixed with other substances such as sugar, starch, or quinine. An added risk results when heroin is mixed with poisons such as strychnine. Some additives that are commonly used do not readily dissolve and result in clogging of the blood vessels that lead to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain. This can cause infection or even death of small patches of cells in vital organs.
  • Heroin abuse is associated with serious health conditions including fatal overdose, spontaneous abortion, collapsed veins, and infectious diseases including HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.
  • Heroin overdoses may result whether the drug is snorted, smoked, or injected. Overdose can cause slow and shallow breathing, convulsions, coma, and even death.
  • The short-term effects of heroin abuse appear soon after a single dose and disappear in a few hours. After an injection of heroin, the user reports feeling a surge of euphoria ("rush") accompanied by a warm flushing of the skin, a dry mouth, and heavy extremities. Following this initial euphoria, the user goes "on the nod," an alternately wakeful and drowsy state. Mental functioning becomes clouded due to depression of the central nervous system.
  • Chronic users may develop collapsed veins, infection of the heart lining and valves, abscesses, cellulitis, and liver disease. Pulmonary complications including various types of pneumonia may result from the poor health condition of the abuser, as well as from heroin's depressing effects on respiration.
  • With regular heroin use, tolerance develops. This means the abuser must use more heroin to achieve the same intensity or effect. As higher doses are used over time, physical dependence and addiction develop. With physical dependence, the body has adapted to the presence of the drug and withdrawal symptoms may occur if use is reduced or stopped.
  • Withdrawal may occur as early as a few hours after the last administration. Withdrawal produces drug cravings, restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea and vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps ("cold turkey"), kicking movements ("kicking the habit"), and other symptoms. Major withdrawal symptoms peak between 48 and 72 hours after the last dose and subside after about a week. Sudden withdrawal by heavily dependent users who are in poor health is occasionally fatal, although heroin withdrawal is considered much less dangerous than alcohol or barbiturate withdrawal.

Heroin Facts
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