Heroin - Drug Addiction

This is an opiate type of drug which is derived from poppies and is highly addictive. It was designed as a painkiller but it is sold on the streets as a means of relaxation and detachment especially after a big night out. It causes an instant ‘rush’ when taken and is either inhaled (snorted), smoked or injected.

What is heroin? 

It is a natural painkiller, similar to codeine and morphine, which is one of several drugs made from the poppy plant. Poppies contain a naturally occurring substance called opium which is the source of both morphine and codeine.

These two drugs are naturally produced whereas other opiates such as methadone are synthetically produced.

However, heroin is a ‘semi-synthetic’  drug in that the first part of the process is the harvesting of morphine from the poppy. The second part is the synthetic part and involves chemically producing heroin from morphine.

This gives it a very powerful effect. When heroin is taken it is converted back to morphine by the brain.

Heroin is mainly produced in laboratories in South America and Asia.

It was originally produced as a painkiller, especially for patients with a terminal illness and even though its dangers have been recognised, it is still prescribed in a few rare cases. But this use is tightly regulated and controlled.

It can also be given to people who are addicted but have not responded to any other forms of drug treatment.

What does it look like?

The purest form of heroin is a white powder but those sold on the streets tend to be brown or an off-white type of powder. The reason for that is it is most likely to be mixed (‘cut’) with other substances. These substances can include sugar, brick dust, starch or ground up gravel.

Heroin which is prescribed for medical reasons is available as tablets or a liquid for injecting.

How is heroin used?

The pure version can be snorted but the street versions are usually smoked or dissolved in water ready for injecting.

Smoking heroin is called ‘chasing the dragon’. 

What is its street name?

Heroin has a variety of street names which include:

  • Horse
  • Junk
  • Skag
  • Smack
  • Dragon
  • Brown
  • H
  • China white

Who uses heroin?

It is used by a wide range of people from all types of backgrounds. Users tend to be young, typically in their twenties or thirties and predominantly male.

How much does it cost?

Prices vary across the UK but many addicts pay 100 or more a day to fund their habit.

What are the effects of heroin?

Heroin acts like a sedative which means that it slows down many of the functions of the body. Small doses cause a feeling of warmth and relaxation as well as removing any tension and anxiety.

The effects depend upon whether you inject, snort or smoke heroin. Injecting heroin into a vein causes an instant ‘rush’ which can last from a few seconds to several minutes. If it is injected into a muscle or under the skin then it will take a bit longer for the effects to be felt.

After the initial euphoria users experience a period of time in which they are relaxed (‘chilled’) and slightly detached from their surroundings. This is one of the reasons why it is used by clubbers after a night out.

However many people find that the first time they use heroin they experience nausea, vomiting and dizziness instead. They may also experience sweating, itchiness and a slowed respiratory rate (breathing).

The effects of heroin can last for several hours.

Is it easy to become addicted to heroin?

In a word  Yes! Heroin is a highly addictive drug which can lead to dependency within a short period of time. It doesn’t matter how it is taken (smoked, snorted or injected) as it causes a physical and psychological dependence within three weeks of first using it.

Not everyone becomes addicted. There are people who use it infrequently, for example weekends only and find that they are able to do this without having to increase the dose.

But a tolerance does build up over time.

Increasing amounts of heroin are needed in order to feel the same effects and to satisfy the cravings in-between. More and more heroin is needed to get these effects and to avoid unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

Using heroin on a regular basis will lead to an addiction which is extremely difficult to break. What tends to happen is that addicts find that long term use has led to a situation in which they no longer ‘enjoy’ using the drug but need to do so in order to prevent withdrawal symptoms. Their ‘need’ outweighs any other concerns.

Withdrawal symptoms include shakes, sweating, chills, muscle spasms, insomnia, vomiting and a general feeling of being unwell. This is known as ‘going cold turkey’.

Many heroin addicts use other drugs as well as heroin or if they are unable to buy heroin.

What are the risks of heroin?

The biggest risk is that of an overdose. This is more likely to happen if you have a period of time away from the drug as your tolerance level will be low. As soon as you inject heroin then you overload your body which reacts by shutting down. It slows down your breathing to the point where it can stop and leads to unconsciousness and death if not treated. An overdose requires emergency hospital treatment.

Heroin is often cut with other substances or additives which puts the user at risk of an overdose. Another factor is that of taking heroin at the same time as another substance, for example methadone.

Other risks of heroin include:

  • HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B/C from sharing needles
  • Ulcers or ‘burnt out’ veins from continual injecting
  • Risk of blood poisoning, abscesses and infections
  • Risk from combining heroin with cocaine (speedball)
  • Damaged lungs and heart (from smoking or snorting heroin)

There is also the fact that many addicts resort to crime to fund their habit. This has a knock on effect in terms of their home, family and employment. Not to mention the effects on their physical and mental health.

Heroin is a Class A drug.

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