What is heroin?
Heroin is a drug made from morphine, which is extracted from the opium poppy. Opium has been around for many hundreds of years and was originally used to treat pain, sleeplessness and diarrhoea. When morphine is made into heroin to be used as a medicine, it’s called diamorphine, and is stronger than morphine or opium. Like many drugs made from opium (called opiates), heroin is a very strong painkiller. ‘Street’ heroin sold as ‘brown’ is sometimes now used by clubbers as a chill out drug after a big night out.
It is still just the same street heroin but some people mistakenly think it’s not as addictive.
Here are some of the main effects and risks of heroin:
- A small dose of heroin gives the user a feeling of warmth and well-being, bigger doses can make you sleepy and very relaxed.
- The first dose of heroin can bring about dizziness and vomiting.
- Heroin is highly addictive and people can quickly get hooked.
- Injecting heroin and sharing injecting equipment can be very risky, as it runs the risk of the injector catching or spreading a virus, such as HIV or hepatitis C. There is also the risk that veins may be damaged and that an abscess or blood clot may develop.
What does heroin look like?
Pure heroin is a white powder, but owing to the range of substances it’s cut with, street heroin can be anything from brownish white to brown.
Prices can vary from region to region, but it has an average price of £10 a bag. Feeding a heroin habit can cost up to £100 a day.
How do people take heroin?
Heroin can either be smoked or dissolved in water and injected – and if it’s pure, it can also be snorted.
Injecting heroin – and sharing the equipment used for injecting, including needles or syringes – can be very risky, because it runs the risk of the person injecting catching or spreading a virus, such as HIV or hepatitis C.
There is also the risk that veins may be damaged and that an abscess or blood clot may develop.
What does heroin do to you?
Heroin gives users a feeling of warmth and well-being, bigger doses can make people sleepy and very relaxed.
It also slows down the way the body works and is a very strong pain-killer. The first dose of heroin can bring about dizziness and vomiting.
The effects of heroin can last for a number of hours so it is important to be careful using any other drugs or alcohol in that time.
What are the risks of taking heroin?
Taking heroin involves a number of risks. Here’s what it could do to you:
- Overdoses can lead to coma and even death – as it can cause respiratory failure (this is what it’s called when your breathing stops).
- If you have been taking heroin regularly you may have built some tolerance, but if you then stop heroin for just for a few days, your tolerance will rapidly drop – and you risk an overdose if you simply take the high dose you previously took.
- If heroin is taken with other drugs, including alcohol, an overdose is more likely. Other downers (such as benzodiazepine tranquillisers or methadone), are also linked with deaths from heroin overdose.
- There’s also a risk of death due to inhaling vomit – because heroin both sedates you and stops you coughing properly – and the vomit remains in the airways so you can’t breathe.
- Injecting heroin can do nasty damage to your veins and arteries, and has been known to lead to gangrene (death of body tissue, usually a finger, toe or a limb) and to infections.
- The risks of sharing needles, syringes and other equipment involved in injecting are well-known – it puts you, and others, in danger of serious infections like hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS
What is heroin cut with?
It’s common for heroin to be mixed with a variety of substances, such as sugar, starch, powdered milk, quinine or paracetamol – this increases its weight and the drug dealer’s profits.
Other substances are also sometimes added to heroin, including sedatives such as benzodiazepines and barbiturates.
Substances like nutmeg, brick dust, and even ground-up gravel have also been reported on occasions.
Can you get addicted to heroin?
Heroin is highly addictive and people can quickly become very dependent on it. Over time, the effects of heroin on the brain cause cravings and a strong drive to keep on using. As heroin is used on a regular basis, the body builds up a tolerance, so that users have to start taking more and more. Initially this increase in dose is needed just to get the same high, but then it is needed to feel ‘normal’, and in time, it is required to avoid very unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.
Doctors have developed a number of effective ways to treat addiction to street heroin. These include initially using certain safer drugs to replace the street heroin, known as opiate substitutes. The most common opiate substitutes are methadone and buprenorphine.
Other drugs are available once you have become drug-free, that block the effects of heroin – so you can’t get a high. All these drug treatments are intended to supplement the counselling and social support that normally is needed to help in becoming drug-free and to recover from addiction.
Heroin and the law
- Heroin is a class A drug, so it’s illegal to have for yourself, give away or sell.
- Possession is illegal and can get you up to seven years in jail and/or an unlimited fine.
- Supplying someone else, even your friends, can get you up to life imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.
What if you’re caught?
If the Police catch you with heroin, they’ll always take some action. This could include a formal caution, arrest and prosecution.
- A conviction for a drug-related offence could have a serious impact. It can stop you visiting certain countries – for example the United States – and limit the types of jobs you can apply for.
Did you know?
- Like drinking and driving, driving when high is illegal – and you can still be unfit to drive the day after using heroin. You can get a heavy fine, be disqualified from driving or even go to prison.
- Allowing other people to use drugs in your house or any other premises is illegal. If the police catch someone using drugs in a club they can prosecute the landlord, club owner or person holding the party.