Understanding heroin and its hold

Heroin powder

A look at the highly addictive drug's history, use and treatment for those who get hooked:

What is heroin?

The opium sap from the bulb of the poppy plant is seen May 31, 2011, in Fayzabad, Badakhshan, Afghanistan.
The opium sap from the bulb of the poppy plant is seen a field in Fayzabad, Badakhshan, Afghanistan.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Heroin comes from the opium poppy flower, mostly grown in Mexico and Afghanistan. Its naturally occurring substance, morphine, is extracted from its pod, and classified as an opioid. Some people think that because a drug is grown from the earth, it must be safe. Not so, it's a highly addictive and dangerous drug.

History of heroin

Opium has been used for thousands of years. The first reference to its use and growth is in 3400 B.C. when it was cultivated in Southwest Asia. The Sumerians passed it to the Assyrians who then passed it to the Egyptians.

In the 18th century opium was traded along the Silk Road. The Silk Road was a trade route that stretched from Europe to Asia. In the mid 1800s, Chinese immigrants moved to the U.S. to work on the railroads, and with them came the habit of smoking opium. This practice caused the proliferation of opium dens to pop up in China and the U.S.

What are the effects?

When people use heroin for the first time they have described it as a euphoric high. Long-term users describe heroin much differently and will often say they need it just to feel normal.

The physical cravings of addicts make them highly susceptible to overdose. Users try to use more and more of the drug to achieve that initial high, but as they use more heroin their bodies are at a much greater risk of overdose. Heroin slows down circulation and heart rate, in larger doses, addicts can go into a coma. Both lead to death.

How is it taken?

Will County, Ill., coroner Pat O'Neil says the way people ingest heroin has changed, making the drug far more accessible to young people and naive first-time users. As the quality of street heroin has improved, early users snort or smoke heroin, more often than not, escalating to injecting.


In the past, heroin was only available through injection and with injection came the obvious signs of drug use, needle marks known as track marks lined the arm. The new heroin has very few noticeable signs of use or abuse.

The appearance of heroin has changed, in its purest form it is a white fine powder, as it is mixed with other substances, unknown to users, it is various shades of brown. Heroin also comes in a black sticky tar like substance that must be cooked down to be injected or a fine white powder that can be snorted or smoked.