What Is Heroin?
Heroin is a powder derived from opium poppies. It may come from South America, Mexico, or Southeast and Southwest Asia. Most heroin in the United States comes from South America, but “black tar” varieties from Mexico are more common in the western US. It has the appearance of coal or roofing tar, with a dark brown to black color.
The drug is extremely addictive. It works by binding to mu-opioid receptors in the brain. these receptors are turned on as a result, stimulating the release of dopamine and inducing a feeling of pleasure. Normally, the body’s natural neurotransmitters bind to these same receptors to release dopamine. The process regulates pain and hormone release. It also helps a person naturally feel a sense of wellbeing.
By activating opioid receptors artificially, one can essentially rewire the reward system. A repeated cycle of craving and euphoria leads people down the path to addiction. The body also develops a natural resistance to the substance, so people require higher doses over time to compensate for the lack of pleasure and/or increased withdrawal symptoms.
Street heroin is almost never pure. It may be a white powder or dark brown. The consistency can vary widely as there may be many impurities depending on the manufacturing process. Sugars, starches, powdered milk, and even other types of drugs may be added as filler. The unpredictable strength of the drug further complicates matters on top of the person’s addiction to it.
Many heroin overdoses are accidental. Some people switch from a prescription opioid-based medication to the drug, for various reasons. The problem is these medications are supplied in known dosages and compositions, and heroin isn’t. Even if heroin may be easier to obtain, the purity can vary regardless of the source. There’s little or no regulation of dosage, so people often don’t know how much drug they are taking.