What is Heroin?
Heroin is a highly addictive illegal drug that has become a serious problem in the U.S., particularly over the last 30 years. Opium, from which heroin is derived, first became widespread in America during the early 1800s as the common pain killer morphine. In the late 1800s, heroin was invented and originally marketed as a safe substitute for morphine, which had been discovered to be addictive. Heroin was sold legally by pharmacies nationwide for decades until it became clear that it was even more addictive and destructive than morphine and the U.S. congress banned it with the Dangerous Drug Act of 1920.
The American market for heroin, however, has only grown since then. One of the factors that is causing the recent growth in U.S. heroin addiction is that the drug is more pure and less expensive than ever before. In the 1970s, a bag of heroin cost $30 and the average heroin user was a 28 to 30 year old urban resident. Today, the same amount of heroin costs just $4 and the average addict is a white, middle-class teenager.
How is Heroin Abused?
Since today’s heroin is so pure, it can be smoked or snorted, although injection remains the most common means of consumption. When injecting, the addict will a use a needle to release the drug directly into the bloodstream. Intravenous injection provides the greatest intensity and most rapid onset of euphoria (seven to eight seconds), while intramuscular injection produces a relatively slow onset of euphoria (five to eight minutes). Snorting is the process of inhaling heroin powder through the nose, where it is absorbed into the bloodstream through the nasal tissues. Smoking involves inhaling heroin smoke into the lungs. When heroin is sniffed or smoked, peak effects are usually felt within 10 to 15 minutes. NIDA researchers have confirmed that all forms of heroin administration are addictive. All three methods of administering heroin can lead to a heroin abuse problem and other severe health problems.
Sources of Heroin
The heroin that is available in the U.S. today is supplied completely from foreign sources of opium. The heroin that is on the U.S. market originates in four distinct parts of the world: Mexico, South America (mostly Colombia), Southeast Asia (mostly Burma), and Southwest Asia (mostly Afghanistan). A majority of the heroin that is used in the United States started out as poppies grown in Colombia and Mexico. Most of the heroin sold in the western United States comes from Mexico and most of the heroin found in the eastern U.S. is Colombian.
Worldwide, however, these countries produce less than 4 percent of the total opium gum available. Columbia, in particular, has seen its heroin production cut in the last few years, with a 60 percent drop since 2001. Colombian law enforcement eradicated 375 hectares of opium poppy in 2007 and the Mexican government reported eradicating 7,784 hectares of opium poppy during that same time.
Heroin abuse is associated with serious health conditions including fatal overdose, spontaneous abortion, and—particularly in users who inject the drug—infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. Chronic users may develop:
- Collapsed veins
- Infection of the heart lining and valves
- Liver or kidney disease
- ulmonary complications, including various types of pneumonia, may result from the poor health of the abuser, as well as from heroin’s depressing effects on respiration
In addition to the effects of the drug itself, street heroin often contains toxic contaminants or additives that can clog the blood vessels leading to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain, causing permanent damage to vital organs. Visit our heroin abuse video
Chronic use of heroin leads to physical dependence, a state in which the body has adapted to the presence of the drug. If a dependent user reduces or stops use of the drug abruptly, they may experience severe symptoms of withdrawal. These symptoms, which can begin as early as a few hours after the last drug administration include:
- Muscle and bone pain
- Diarrhea and vomiting
- Cold flashes with goose bumps (“cold turkey”)
- Kicking movements (“kicking the habit”)
Users also experience severe craving for the drug during withdrawal, precipitating continued abuse and/or relapse. Major withdrawal symptoms peak between 48 and 72 hours after the last dose and typically subside after about a week; however, some individuals may show persistent withdrawal symptoms for months. Although heroin withdrawal is considered less dangerous than alcohol or barbiturate withdrawal, sudden withdrawal by heavily dependent users who are in poor health is occasionally fatal.
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