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What Is Heroin?

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Heroin, in its purest form, is a fine white powder. However, most people will see it as gray, brown, or black. Heroin is known as an opioid and is created from the Asian poppy plant. Heroin can be injected directly into a person’s vein using a needle or syringe. Additionally, it can be snorted or smoked. All ways of use can quickly enter the bloodstream, instantly causing a person to feel high. This intense high is what leads to heroin being very addictive.

In 2021, 1.1 million people aged 12 and older reported using heroin in the past 12 months. 

Guardian Recovery will discuss what heroin is, where it comes from, how it is made, and how to seek addiction treatment. 

If you or someone you love has a heroin use disorder, Guardian Recovery is available to help. We are dedicated to providing the most comprehensive and individualized medically monitored detox program. To learn more about our programs, contact us today.

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Commonly-Used Street Names for Heroin

Heroin street names vary by country, but this article will focus on heroin nicknames commonly used in the U.S.

Common Street Names for Heroin:

  • Smack.
  • H.
  • Junk.
  • Brown Sugar.
  • Skag (or Skagg).
  • Dope.
  • Horse.
  • Hell Dust.
  • Thunder.
  • Big H.

Other heroin slang and nicknames depend on the appearance of the drug, as it can take the form of a white or brown powder or black tar heroin.

White Powder, Heroin Street Names:

  • China White.
  • Snow.
  • Snowball.
  • Sugar.
  • White.
  • White Boy.
  • White Girl.
  • White Horse.
  • White Stuff.

Brown Powder, Heroin Street Names:

  • Brown.
  • Brown Crystal.
  • Brown Tape.
  • Brown Rhine.
  • Brown Sugar.
  • Coffee.
  • Dirt.

Black Tar Heroin Street Names:

  • Black.
  • Black Bitch.
  • Black Pearl.
  • Black Eagle.
  • Black Stuff.
  • Cement.
  • Diesel.
  • Dark.

Drug Classification & Schedule of Heroin

The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) monitors and regulates all substances under existing federal law into one of five schedules.  This placement is based on the substance’s medical use, potential abuse, and safety or dependence liability. 

Heroin is a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act meaning that it has a high potential for abuse, is not used as medical treatment in the United States, and lacks accepted safety for use under medical supervision.

Where Does Heroin Come From?

Heroin is an opioid drug made from morphine, a natural substance produced from the pod of the opium poppy plants grown in southeast and southwest Asia, Mexico, and Colombia. Heroin can be a white or brown powder or a black sticky substance known as black tar heroin. People inject, snort, or smoke heroin. All ways of use can quickly enter the bloodstream, instantly causing a person to feel high. This intense high is what leads to heroin being very addictive. 

What Is in Heroin & How Is It Produced?

Heroin originates from the Asian poppy plant found in southeast and southwest Asia, Mexico, and Columbia.

Heroin, like opium and morphine, is made from the seed pod of poppy plants. Milky, sap-like opium is first removed from the pod of the poppy flower. This opium is refined to make morphine, then further refined into different forms of heroin.

After three months of planting the poppy seed plants, brightly colored flowers bloom. As the petals fall away, an egg-shaped pod is left remaining. Inside the pod is milky sap. This is opium in its most simple form. The sap is extracted by slitting the pod vertically with a curved knife. The sap oozes out as a thick brownish-black gum, and the farmer then wraps the gum up in bricks with leaves over the top. The remaining process is sent to be completed in a morphine refinery.

Cutting Agents Used in Heroin Production

Heroin is hardly ever found as a pure substance when buying on the street. This leads to a significantly increased risk of overdose and death.

Common Substances Cut With Heroin:

  • Baking soda.
  • Sugar.
  • Starch.
  • Crushed over-the-counter painkillers.
  • Talcum powder.
  • Powdered milk.
  • Laundry detergent.
  • Caffeine.
  • Rat poison.

None of these substances are safe to be snorted or injected directly into one’s bloodstream, but some are safer than others. Stimulants are dangerous because they can mask the signs of overdose, leading to a lack of treatment and a much higher risk of brain damage or death.

Heroin Powder

Powder heroin is derived from the Asian poppy plant and comes in white, brown, or gray powder when bought in powder form. Although white is associated with a pure form of heroin, it is never sold in the highest quality if a person is buying heroin buying from the streets. Heroin is almost always cut with substances such as flour and powdered milk to add to its bulk or other psychedelic drugs to make more of a profit.

Black Tar Heroin

Black Tar Heroin is black and sticky in appearance and texture. Additionally, it may be referred to as “Mexican Black Tar Heroin” because it is a significant export for Mexican cartels; the drug is mainly found in Western US and Canada.

A common misconception is that black tar heroin isn’t as pure as white powder heroin; however, it is just as strong. This misconception can easily lead to people overdosing, thinking they need more to get the same high. Because of its crude form, the sticky tar is complex and cannot be used by injection unless diluted into a liquid (typically done by heating it with a spoon). People with Black Tar Heroin will also smoke it or ingest it.

Liquid Heroin

Liquid heroin, or lean, is an opioid drug made from cough syrup and soda. Liquid heroin can also refer to black tar heroin mixed with water. Both are highly addictive and have many risks.

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What Does Heroin Look & Smell Like?

Many drugs have a distinct smell and appearance. Heroin comes in many different forms. It can be in powder form, with various colors such as white, brown, and grey. Heroin can also come in black tar, which is black, sticky, and can be melted into a liquid.

The distinct smell that heroin has is vinegar. The reason heroin sometimes smells like vinegar is because of the chemical process used to make the drug. The odor occurs after the final steps of processing heroin. Although heroin is associated with a vinegar smell, it doesn’t always have it. The better heroin is washed at the end, or the purer it is, the less likely it is to have a strong vinegar odor.

How Is Heroin Used & Taken?

One of the most common ways a person uses heroin is by injecting heroin with a needle. There are various ways a person may use heroin, such as by injecting, smoking, or snorting. Heroin is a highly addictive drug, and there are many dangers associated with using heroin alone; there are additional risks for using needles to inject heroin.

Is Heroin Used Medically?

Heroin is identified as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act meaning that it has a high potential for abuse and is not currently accepted for medical use in the United States.

Recreational Uses

The main uses of heroin include injection, inhalation, and sniffing/snorting. Although smoking, injecting, and snorting heroin result in the same goal of getting high from heroin, there are differences in all three modalities with various risks associated, types of materials used, and levels of dependency. 


Needles are used with heroin by injecting the drug directly into a user’s vein. Users often use discreet injection sites. Most users start by injecting in their forearms but may move to other areas such as the neck, groin, hands, feet, or face when scarring or inflammation occurs. 


One way a person may smoke heroin is through something called foil smoking. Foil smoking is generally heroin consumption by inhalation. By heating an aluminum foil with a lighter, the heroin on top of the foil starts melting, and the smoke is then inhaled using a straw. Foil smoking is the second most common form of heroin consumption after intravenous use.


People may have the misconception that snorting heroin is safer than injecting heroin. However, it has been reported that heroin users who begin heroin use by snorting or smoking heroin first eased their transition to needle drug use. It is also increasingly common for heroin to be cut with other dangerous, potent opioids like illicitly manufactured fentanyl, a significant risk factor for overdose no matter how heroin is taken.

Common Symptoms & Side Effects Experienced by Users

Heroin use has significant short and long-term effects. Once heroin enters the brain, it is converted to morphine. People who use heroin typically report feeling a surge of pleasurable sensations. With heroin, the rush is accompanied by warm skin flushing, dry mouth, and a heavy feeling in the arms and legs. Nausea, vomiting, and severe itching may also occur. After the initial effects, users will usually be drowsy for several hours; mental function is clouded; heart function slows; and breathing is slowed, sometimes enough to be life-threatening. Slowed breathing can also lead to coma and permanent brain damage.

How Addictive Is Heroin?

Heroin is a powerful opioid drug made from the opium poppy plant. No matter how it is taken, when heroin enters the body, it moves to the brain quickly and changes how the central nervous system functions. In the brain, heroin binds to specific receptors responsible for sensations of pain and pleasure.

While heroin dulls pain and delivers a euphoric rush of pleasure, it also sends signals to parts of the brain responsible for regulating heart and breathing rates, memory, motor control, alertness, and emotional control. The limbic system, in particular, and the reward-response reactions that occur there play a significant role in the development of addiction. Heroin causes this system to release dopamine, leaving the individual with feelings of satisfaction and well-being for a short time. However, drowsiness and mental impairment follow for hours afterward. 

Another indicator contributing to addiction is how quickly a person may feel euphoric. For snorting heroin, it takes about 5 minutes to feel the effects of the high of heroin. For smoking and injecting heroin, a person will experience the high immediately. This is why all forms of heroin use are highly addictive and dangerous.

Can Someone Become Addicted From First Time Use?

While it is unlikely a person will become addicted to heroin at first use, heroin is a highly addictive drug that impacts people very soon after use. In addition to the euphoria a person experiences when using heroin that leads to addiction, a person will quickly begin feeling withdrawal symptoms after they come down from the high, which also can lead to addictive tendencies. 

Heroin use disorder is a medical condition characterized by an addiction to heroin. 

Common Symptoms of Heroin Use Disorder:

  • Cravings for the drug.
  • Decreased mental clarity or focus.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Withdrawal symptoms such as nausea and irritability when unable to access the drug.
  • Other physical symptoms may include sweating and shaking or muscle tension.

Breaking free from heroin can be challenging because of its highly addictive nature. Successful addiction treatment is best found through a comprehensive recovery program like the one offered at Guardian Recovery, which provides the support you need to detox in a safe and comfortable environment.

Heroin Addiction & Overdose Statistics

Heroin is a powerful drug that can lead to dependency, overdose, and death. Because people feel an intense high immediately, it creates a desire to have more. In 2020, more than 13,000 people died from an overdose involving heroin in the United States. This equals more than four deaths for every 100,000 Americans. The number of heroin overdose deaths was seven times higher in 2020 than in 1999.

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At Guardian Recovery, we remain dedicated to providing our clients with a comprehensive program of heroin detox — one that focuses on much more than physical stabilization. In addition to emphasizing physical recovery, we tackle mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. While we prioritize a safe and pain-free cocaine withdrawal, we offer individualgroup, and family therapy sessions, case management services, relapse prevention training, and aftercare planning

Contact us today if you or your loved one is ready to begin an entirely new way of life and commit to long-term recovery. As soon as you call, we start developing a plan of action that begins with an initial pre-assessment. This assessment helps us determine which level of care is the most appropriate for each unique case. We identify potential coverage options if our medically monitored detox program is a good fit. We work closely with most major regional and national insurance providers. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation insurance benefit check.


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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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