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Everything You Wanted To Know About Heroin

by Landmark Recovery

July 10, 2018
A man learning about heroin online

Heroin is a highly addictive substance processed from morphine, a naturally occurring opiate derived from opium poppy seed. These plants are typically grown in South America, Afghanistan, and Southeast Asia and the product is trafficked around the world. The drug is a chemically modified version of partially purified morphine, a process which is carried out in refineries near opium fields. It is usually sold on the streets in small bags of loose powder, ranging in color from white to brown to black. The purest form available is white, while highly impure heroin, sold as black tar, is sticky and black.


What does Heroin Look Like?


White Heroin

White heroin is typically trafficked from Southeast Asia (Thailand, Laos, and Burma) in powder form. This form is highly dissoluble in water and has upwards of 90% purity unless it is cut using other powders.


Off-White Heroin

Off-white to light brown heroin is typically trafficked from Colombia. This heroin is also sold in powder form.


Brown Heroin

Brown Heroin is coarser than white heroin and also comes in powder form. This form is typically shipped from Southwest Asia and is harder to dissolve in water.


Black Tar Heroin

Black Tar Heroin usually comes from Mexico and arrives in solid form as opposed to powder form. It typically has the lowest purity of all types of heroin and can be made usable by adding heat and converting into a vapor that is inhaled.


How does Heroin Work?

As an opiate, Heroin acts on the specific receptor molecules in the brain for the endorphin/enkephalin class of neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters are associated with movement, mood, and physiological processes such as breathing, digestion, and body temperature. Typically, the body sends out endorphins and enkephalins according to when it is called upon. When taking an opioid, every endogenous opioid neuron fires at once, flooding the brain with feel-good chemicals.

Heroin is especially potent because of its high fat solubility, meaning it is absorbed quicker into the body where it reaches the brain faster than other forms of opiates. Medical lobbyists support heroin’s medical application because of the quick painkilling properties it could offer, but the government has yet to modify the drug Schedule status because of its addictive properties.


History of Heroin

Heroin was not created until 1874, but the history of opiates dates back long before that, more than 5400 years. The ancient Mesopotamians and Sumerians grew the opium poppy and used for a variety of medicinal and recreational purposes. The poppy was referred to as “hul gil,” or the “plant of joy.” Through trade, the opium poppy spread through the Middle East. The first mention in Greek writing is traced to the fifth century B.C. where it was prescribed for insomnia. Roman physicians administered the drug liberally, and there is historical debate over whether the emperor Marcus Aurelius was an opium addict or not.

Opium spread was later strengthened by the Age of Exploration during which the Portuguese introduced Chinese traders to the smoking pipe. Habitual use of opium smoking became endemic in China, and by 1820 the annual importation of opium into the country was 270 metric tons a year. China banned the smoking of the drug in 1796 and in 1839 they forcibly seized British trade ships and burned the opium cargo. This sparked the first of two minor wars with Great Britain over opium trade.

In Europe, the German pharmacist Freidrich Wilhelm Adam Seturner processed morphine out of opium, creating a more pure substance that would later be mass produced for commercial consumption. In 1874, the English researcher C.R. Wright first synthesized heroin by boiling morphine and acetic anhydride. 20 years later, German scientist Heinrich Dreser created a more palatable alternative and deemed it a success. The German pharmaceutical giant Bayer began manufacturing the drug and marketing it under the brand name Heroin. Here are the major moments in time between then and now concerning heroin usage in the United States:

  • 1924: U.S. Congress bans the manufacture, sale, and importation of heroin.
  • 1925: The League of Nations is founded in 1920 and sets international restrictions on the manufacturing and export of heroin through the Geneva Convention.
  • 1931: The Limitations Convention restricts heroin production to within the limits of medicinal purposes. Heroin’s worldwide production decreases significantly.
  • 1939-1945: Heroin addicts plummet from 200,000 to less than 20,000.
  • 1950-1960: Beatnik and hippy culture lead to a rise in heroin use and heroin addicts in the U.S.
  • 1971: Richard Nixon takes on heroin as a priority of his war on drugs policy agenda.
  • 1980-1990: Heroin purity improves and increases in prevalence across the United States.
  • 2010: 3,036 deaths from heroin overdose.
  • 2013: 8,257 deaths from heroin overdose.
  • 2014: 10,574 deaths from heroin overdose.


Heroin Addiction Help

As heroin production and availability has increased globally, the price has been driven down. This combined with higher rates of prescription pain medication have changed the way we must approach heroin addiction. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that U.S. heroin use has seen steady growth among both genders at every income level in the past few years.

This constitutes a national epidemic, but there is hope for heroin addicts seeking help. The DEA reported that in 2014, there were more treatment admissions for heroin than for any other illicit substance. This is despite the reality that heroin users are smaller than the populations of marijuana and methamphetamine users. Heroin addicts should seek out medical detox and residential treatment centers to successfully overcome their addiction. Treatment is available for people who need it, whether it be detox, medication-assisted treatment, medical care, inpatient, outpatient, or partial hospitalization programs.


What Treatment is there for Heroin Addiction?

Fortunately, there are multiple treatment methods available for heroin abuse. By utilizing behavioral therapy and medication-assisted treatment, you can increase your odds of successfully overcoming a heroin addiction. Patients who use these a combination of these methods are linked to greater workplace function, increased employment rates, lowered risk of HIV, and less criminal behavior.

Medication Assisted Treatment helps an addict achieve sobriety through the administration and gradual withdrawal from a low-grade form of the drug they were abusing. For example, Suboxone is a prescription medication used for the treatment of opioid addiction. It is a combination of two different drugs: buprenorphine (a partial opioid agonist) and naloxone (an opioid antagonist), and helps to reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings while preventing misuse. Utilizing Suboxone to treat opiate addiction works best when administered by professional staff and in tandem with a tested therapeutic and aftercare program. This is what Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) looks like, and this approach has an overall higher success rate for those suffering from an opioid addiction. The most common medications for this type of treatment are:



Suboxone is a prescription medication used for the treatment of opioid addiction. It is a combination of two different drugs: buprenorphine (a partial opioid agonist) and naloxone (an opioid antagonist), and helps to reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings while preventing misuse.



Naltrexone is also used as an effective treatment for alcohol withdrawal. It works by blocking the opioid receptors in the brain to reduce cravings while stopping the effects of heroin from taking place.



Buprenorphine, while used as a part of Suboxone, can also be administered by itself. Buprenorphine works with the same opioid receptors that heroin affects, but it is limited and not nearly as potent. Buprenorphine is effective for withdrawal and cravings.



Methadone is more widely known than buprenorphine, but it works in the same fashion. Methadone use is controversial because, when used excessively, it can cause a build up in the body, making overdose a more likely outcome. Methadone users run the risk of becoming addicted.


Behavioral Therapies

Behavioral therapy is usually a component of any form of outpatient or inpatient treatment. Therapists will likely use a combination of different approaches to suit patient needs such as contingency management, cognitive behavioral therapy, and motivational interviewing. The purpose of these treatment methods is to help patients build coping skills, understand the triggers behind their addiction, and create a robust framework for continued sobriety.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: CBT helps to teach patients to recognize and understand the triggers underlying their addiction as well as identify and deconstruct negative thoughts
  • Motivational Interviewing: This therapy technique involves structured conversations between patients and therapists with the goal of bolstering the patient’s self-image and self-belief in conquering their addiction
  • Contingency Management: With this method, therapists provide incentives to patients to abstain from their addictions. It’s simple, but with carefully structured contingency management therapy, patients can make small and meaningful steps towards recovery.


Top Heroin-Producing Countries



Mexico is one of the largest exporters of heroin in the world and is a significant source of the drug in the United States. In the 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment Report, research revealed that Mexican cartels expanded their operations in the U.S. significantly. In 2014 alone, heroin from Mexico accounted for 80% of all heroin in the U.S., and in 2015, 93% of heroin seized by the DEA came from Mexico. In 2016, poppy cultivation reached more than 32,000 hectares, which is enough to produce 81 metric tons of heroin.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has made strides in the fight against drug cartels. In 2014, for example, his administration was successful in apprehending Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the boss of one of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartels, the Sinaloa cartel. In 2015, one Congressional Research report estimated that more than 80,000 people had been killed in Mexico due to cartel-related incidents since 2006. Under the administration of Nieto, homicide numbers dropped down by 30%.



Colombia is infamous for having been the home of cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. Nowadays, the market serves another drug: heroin. It is the second biggest Latin American supplier of the drug for the United States. While Mexico was known for its lower quality, lower price, and higher volume, Colombia was more synonymous with the pure “China White” heroin that comes in white powder form. Due to frequent rains in the Colombian region, opium is immediately processed from the opium pods to prevent it from being washed away. The majority of shipments out of Colombia are flown or delivered by boat northwards into Orlando, Chicago, New York, and Boston.


Southeast and Southwest Asia

From 1988 to 1994, Southeast Asia was the world’s largest supplier of wholesale heroin. However, from 2002 onwards production has decreased and it now holds a smaller market share in the West compared to South America. In Asia, Africa, and Europe, this is the dominant source of heroin. The Golden Triangle is an area that borders Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar and is renowned for being one of the most extensive opium-producing regions of the world. Most of the world’s heroin before 2000 was produced in this area until Afghanistan became the largest producer. Most heroin that enters the U.S. through Southeast Asia is carried on commercial airliners and brought into California and Hawaii.



Afghanistan has been the world’s number one exporter of illicit opium since 2000, and they currently produce 95% of the world’s supply of raw opium poppy. More land is used for opium production in Afghanistan than for cocaine production in Latin America. As of 2017, opium production provided 400,000 jobs in Afghanistan, more than all the Afghan National Security Forces combined.

From 2016-2017, land use for poppy cultivation in Afghanistan increased by 63% and the estimated total production of opium shot up by 87% to reach 9000 metric tons, marking a record high for the country. The growth in this black market is likely due to an economic slump that has been in place since American and U.N. forces withdrew from the region in 2013. The Afghan economy is fundamentally built on the exportation of opium, thought to generate some $1.3 billion.


Find Heroin Addiction Treatment Today

If you are seeking drug and alcohol recovery, contact Landmark Recovery today. At Landmark Recovery, we are committed to offering high-quality treatment in an environment based off of trust, treatment, and intervention. With treatment programs catered to individuals needs, we are passionate about finding what works best for you as you begin your road to recovery and happier life. We even have heroin poems that can allow users to get a new perspective and insight to recovery. Our staff is a team of passionate, authentic, and courageous individuals who are uncompromising in our pursuit of excellence. Start living the life you dreamed, and begin recovery at Landmark today!

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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.