Where Does Heroin Come From?

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Heroin is an opioid made from morphine, an alkaloid derived from the seed pod of the opium poppy plants indigenous to regions in Asia, Mexico, and Columbia. Heroin is found as a powder ranging from white to brown or a black sticky substance known as black tar heroin. It can be injected, snorted, or smoked, inducing intense euphoric, rewarding, and relaxing effects. For this reason, heroin use has a very high potential for dependence and overdose.

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Heroin, Morphine, & the Poppy Plant

Heroin, also known as diacetylmorphine or diamorphine, is derived from morphine, which is an organic substance harvested from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). The poppy plant produces a sappy resin that is processed to remove impurities and extract alkaloids, such as codeine, thebaine, and morphine.

Heroin is a semisynthetic opioid produced from morphine through a process called acetylation. (1) This process increases the potency of the opioid effects. The resulting compound, diacetylmorphine, has increased water solubility, allowing it to cross the blood-brain barrier more easily and elicit effects more rapidly and intensely than morphine. Because of this increased potency, heroin poses a higher risk of overdose to users than morphine.

The History & Origin of Heroin

Opium has been cultivated and used by people for thousands of years. The earliest reference to opium occurred in Mesopotamia around 3400 BCE. The Sumerians referred to opium as the “joy plant.” (2) However, the synthesis of heroin from morphine didn’t happen until 1874, when it was accomplished by Charles Romley Alder Wright, an English chemist. Wright’s initial goal was to produce a non-addictive replacement for morphine to curb the spread of morphine addiction, also known as the “Soldier’s Disease.” (3)

After Wright’s death, Bayer, the German pharmaceutical company, began marketing diamorphine as a pain-relieving analgesic and sedative cough syrup in 1898. However, by the early 20th century, heroin’s considerable addictive potential had become evident. By 1913, Bayer had stopped producing it, and soon after, it came under government control and regulation.

In the United States, heroin is currently a Schedule I substance, meaning it is not considered medically useful and has a high potential for misuse. (4)

Geographic Origins of Opium & Heroin

Historically, most of the world’s opium was grown in Southeast Asia’s “Golden Triangle”—the geographic convergence point of Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar. Today, however, around 95% of the world’s heroin is synthesized from opium grown in Afghanistan, although some opium comes from Colombia, Mexico, and Myanmar. (5) These countries have favorable environmental conditions for growing opium and weak law enforcement, which allows opium farmers, heroin manufacturers, and drug traffickers to operate freely.

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Heroin Additives

Heroin manufacturers often cut or mix other substances into their heroin product to increase its volume and weight or adjust its potency. Hundreds of different adulterants can be cut into heroin at any point during manufacturing and distribution. Although many additives are relatively benign, some can be caustic and damaging, and others can be outright deadly. Without governmental oversight, it’s impossible to know what other substances could be lingering alongside heroin purchased on the street.

Common Heroin Additives Include:

  • Bulking agents — White, powdery substances are used as cheap filler materials to bulk up the product, increase its weight, and generate more profits. For white heroin, additives include baking soda, talcum powder, chalk, detergent, rat poison, calcium carbonate (antacids), salt, powdered milk, sugar, and flour. For black tar and brown heroin, substances such as shoe polish, brown sugar, and dirt are sometimes added.
  • Caffeine — Powdered caffeine is one of the most common substances cut into heroin. As a stimulant, it is added to counteract sedative effects without compromising the sought-after euphoric effects. It is also believed to improve opioid uptake in the central nervous system and enhance the drug’s overall high.
  • Acetaminophen — Also known as paracetamol, this is the active ingredient in Tylenol, the over-the-counter pain reliever. It is a diluent frequently added to heroin because it is cheap, widely available, and has a melting point similar to that of heroin.

Fentanyl — This synthetic opioid is approximately 50 times stronger than heroin—and much deadlier. (6) Because it is cheaper to produce, fentanyl is often cut into heroin to increase its potency.

The Global Heroin Trade

The illegal production and distribution of heroin from its point of origin is almost entirely controlled by large, powerful criminal organizations networked across the globe. Organized crime enterprises grow the opium, extract the morphine, convert it to heroin, package it, and ship it out for further distribution in high-demand areas.

In 2008, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) estimated there were more than 15 million heroin users worldwide. At the time, the U.S. was amidst a rapidly growing opioid epidemic related to the overprescription of painkillers. However, the UNODC reported that the combined heroin consumption of users throughout the Americas was less than 8% of the world’s total. In contrast, Russia alone consumed over 20%, and the rest of Europe consumed nearly 26% of the world’s heroin. (7)

From its origin, heroin is shipped to criminal organizations in other regions of the world. It is then spread to wholesale distributors, who supply it to street-level dealers to sell to consumers. Since the 1990s, heroin has also been available for purchase online on the dark web.

Impact of the Heroin Trade

Because the heroin trade is illegal, competition between criminal organizations to control markets is often hostile and steeped in violence. Criminal organizations also find ways to influence government and law enforcement, including bribery, which leads to governmental corruption. Moreover, along with crime and violence, heroin misuse generates its own set of wide-ranging problems, including severe health consequences, overdose deaths, and addiction. (8)

The social impact of heroin is enormous. It can devastate individual lives, families, and communities, and it contributes significantly to issues such as poverty and homelessness.

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Heroin misuse is extremely dangerous and can have many detrimental short- and long-term effects. A single dose can cause a lethal overdose and increases the risk of this occurring over time. Even those who escape heroin’s death grip can be left with long-lasting or permanent health conditions, such as damage to the brain and other organs and collapsed veins among those who inject. If you struggle with heroin misuse, you are urged to seek professional treatment to minimize the damage heroin will ultimately have on your body and mind.

At Guardian Recovery, we are committed to providing the most effective treatment, care, and support for those motivated to embrace sobriety and conquer addiction. If you or someone you love suffers from heroin addiction, contact us today to speak to a Treatment Advisor and receive a free, no-obligation assessment and health insurance benefits check.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

(1)https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/earth-and-planetary-sciences/acetylation (2)https://museum.dea.gov/exhibits/online-exhibits/cannabis-coca-and-poppy-natures-addictive-plants/opium-poppy (3)https://www.narconon.org/drug-information/heroin-history-1900s.html (4)https://www.dea.gov/drug-information/drug-scheduling (5)https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/tocta/5.Heroin.pdf (6)https://www.cdc.gov/stopoverdose/fentanyl/index.html# (7)https://www.unodc.org/documents/wdr/WDR_2010/1.2_The_global_heroin_market.pdf (8)https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin/what-are-medical-complications-chronic-heroin-use

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

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:

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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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