Heroin Addiction

A commonly abused drug in the United States, heroin is both illegal and highly addictive. A member of the opiate family, it is derived from the opium poppy plant and is made from morphine. Heroin addiction is a rampant disease that claims thousands of lives every year and is only getting worse, as many people are reaching for heroin as a last resort drug to feed their prescription painkiller addiction. In the past few years, nearly 80 percent of users attributed their use to prescription opioid use. Therefore, prescription opioid use is one of the risk factors for heroin use. If you are addicted to heroin or know someone who is, it’s important to seek help as soon as possible.

Known as dope, smack, horse and junk, heroin has a few physical characterizations. It can either appear as a white or brown powder, or a sticky substance called black tar heroin. Heroin is an opiate, or natural derivative of the opium poppy plant seed pod, and it elicits feelings of elation and pleasure, called a “high,” that people get addicted to. However, the adverse effects of use and abuse are too serious and harmful to ignore.

Although heroin is made from morphine, it changes back into morphine after it enters the brain. After binding to opioid receptors, the areas of the brain responsible for pleasure and mood are triggered. Such areas include the brainstem, which is responsible for controlling important autonomic bodily functions such as blood pressure, breathing and arousal. There are different ways to administer it based on how quickly users want to get high or feel the effects of the drug. Snorting, smoking and injecting are the most common ways of ingesting heroin. There are three ways to inject heroin:

  • Subdermally (under the skin)
  • Intramuscularly (into the muscle)
  • Directly into the veins

Heroin is such a potent drug that those who use it feel the high relatively quickly. Some also mix the drug with crack cocaine to create a powerful concoction called a speedball. Overdosing on it in any form is a very real possibility, especially when it’s mixed with other drugs. Heroin overdose is a medical emergency. Unlike the days when a very distinct, small group of people from a lower socioeconomic status used heroin, today, a wide variety of people use it. Because of the increase of supply and ease in obtaining it, people from many backgrounds use heroin. Prescription painkillers have become the gateway drug to heroin, so anyone who has been prescribed narcotic medications can be susceptible to heroin use and addiction.

Though prescription painkiller addiction and abuse cases are currently a lot higher than heroin addiction cases, the numbers can shift easily due to the chemical similarity among the opiates. The opioid epidemic has taken the United States by storm, and many people are dying from overdose every day, with a high number related to heroin abuse. Due to the addictive nature of prescription opiates, users who are unable to finance their addiction resort to using heroin because it produces a more distinct high for less money and is readily available.

heroin addiction
Heroin is available most commonly in a powder form. It can appear white or brown. This color usually varies based on geographic location in the United States. White or off-white powdered heroin is commonly seen in the eastern U.S. The variation in colors denotes the purity level of the drug. Whiter is purer and more potent in comparison with off-white or brown. Typically, there are more impurities in brownish heroin powder.

Conversely, in the Western part of the U.S., heroin is sold as a solid, sticky substance that is typically black in color. Known as black tar or sticky tar, this substance can be hard to the touch. Some powdered heroin may also be found in the West, but it’s typically the more impure, brown variety. The purest forms are odor-free. However, the darker, impure forms of heroin have a slight, pungent smell similar to that of vinegar. Similarly, black tar heroin also has a smell slightly resembling vinegar. If both black tar and off-white heroin are smoked, the smell will intensify, and the vinegar scent will be even stronger.

While pure heroin does exist in the drug marketplace, more often than not, it’s cut with other drugs and substances. This means drug dealers mix in these substances with heroin so they can sell more of the drug and make a more significant profit. While this process does dilute it, it also makes consuming the drug more dangerous, as it can cause a myriad of effects. Some substances heroin is commonly cut with are:

  • Baking soda
  • Laundry detergent
  • Rat poison
  • Talcum powder
  • Caffeine
  • Flour
  • White sugar
  • Fentanyl

While some of these ingredients are outright dangerous, such as rat poison and laundry detergent, other “safer” materials also threaten a heroin abuser’s health. For example, caffeine mixed with heroin can mask signs of overdose, causing those who use it to think they should take more. However, this can lead to brain damage or death.

Now that many users are also aware of the price of heroin in comparison to prescription opiates, demand is at all-time high. Consequently, the risks of overdose and death are also at a high as dealers try to meet the demand by cutting heroin with other substances.

Those who use heroin can smoke, snort or inject it. Injecting the drug into the veins is the quickest way to feel a heroin high. Intravenous distribution is also the most dangerous method of administration, as you can overdose more easily and be exposed to used needles. Many describe the high as a rush of elation, happiness and good feelings. Some people also report feeling as though the world slows down while they’re on heroin, or as if they’re in a dream. Many people report using heroin to help them deal with worries, stress and mental disorders like anxiety.
Although it is possible to recover from heroin addiction, it’s not easy. Many people who have tried to beat their addiction have relapsed or returned to it several times after a period of sobriety. Why is overcoming heroin addiction so difficult? Research shows heroin hijacks the brain, “rewiring” it to think heroin is an essential chemical.

Referred to as “the joy plant,” heroin comes from the opium poppy, a flower with seed pods that have highly addictive properties. Many people have reported feeling extremely good and “high” after their first hit, which triggered their addiction. The addicted, hijacked brain is singularly focused on getting high at all costs, so much so that users go to extreme measures to get that “high.” Those who abuse heroin have been known to commit illegal activities like theft, robbery and prostitution to get more of the drug. Addiction to opioids has become one of the most pressing public health issues.

Three out of four people who use heroin claim before they were using heroin, they were abusing prescription opiates, or painkillers. Although all drugs have the same pathway in the brain, heroin and other opioids are known to get people higher, faster than any drug. Heroin works in the same way as other opioids in that it increases the amount of dopamine released to the limbic reward system, a part of the brain responsible for feeling pleasure. The limbic reward system drives all intense pleasure, such as that related to eating, drinking and sex. When a person uses heroin, however, the drug takes over the limbic reward system, producing a flush of dopamine and a rush of pleasure and euphoria. Following this experience, many report feeling like they need to seek out the drug again and again. This repeated use of heroin is what drives heroin dependence very quickly.

Detoxing and withdrawing from the addiction can be extremely difficult and potentially harmful to the body if not done under proper guidance. It can be extremely difficult for those who abuse heroin to quit the drug on their own because it affects parts of the brain that control judgment, planning and organization. Heroin abuse also hijacks the brain’s memory systems and motivational systems. This could easily result in a relentless pursuit of the drug for the next high, at any cost.

Sadly, many people make reckless decisions while on heroin, destroying their relationships, jobs, finances and families. Although some have every intention of getting clean and sober for the sake of their loved ones, it can be very difficult to get their brains healthy. Besides the intense feelings of pleasure and joy that take over the brain, everyday functioning becomes extremely difficult for users. Finding a job, housing and saving money become extremely difficult challenges. Additionally, many users may have possibly gotten into trouble with the law trying to find and use heroin, making the practical issues of living a functional life even more challenging.

To add to the challenges, there is a misconception that detoxification and rehabilitation are the same thing. While detoxification, or the act of getting off of heroin, is a key step in rehabilitation, if someone goes through detox instead of rehab for heroin addiction is likely to relapse. Treatment typically involves multiple phases of therapy including detox, medication, talk therapy, and job support — all important tools necessary to help the user fight the addiction. It’s essential for a person to detox and undergo rehab if they truly want to recover from heroin addiction. With proper treatment and the right group of people for support, recovery is possible. Having a support system and treatment can help reverse the hijacking effects heroin has on the brain and help people on the way to living a clean and sober life.  

Heroin use is increasing at an alarming rate across the country, especially among teenagers and young adults. With availability and supply at an all time high, many teenagers are succumbing to heroin use. Interesting statistics regarding heroin addiction include:

  • The number of people using heroin for the first time is extremely and alarmingly high, with a reported 156,000 people starting heroin use in 2012. This is nearly double the number of people in 2006, with a reported 90,000 first-time users.
  • Heroin use has been declining among teenagers aged 12–17 years old. Recent data shows heroin use among 8th, 10th and 12th graders is at its lowest rate ever.
  • More people are experiencing negative health effects from repeated heroin use. The number of users meeting heroin dependence and abuse of heroin criteria doubled from 214,000 in 2002 to 467,000 in 2012. These numbers continue to rise.
  • The impact of heroin use is felt all across the country. However, heroin use is most significant in smaller communities. Recent research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse Community Epidemiology Work Group showed the rising harm associated with heroin use on the community level. Although heroin use no longer predominates in urban regions, officials are reporting increased seizures of heroin in many suburban and rural communities. Furthermore, more deaths are being reported in small towns attributed to heroin overdose.
Heroin abuse and addiction can affect anyone, regardless of race, gender, age or economic status. There have been many notable celebrity deaths due to heroin overdose. Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour died from a combination of opioid substances in his body, including heroin. Glee actor Cory Monteith died at only 31 years of age due to a mix of alcohol and heroin in his system. Comedian and actor John Belushi died at only 33 years of age after taking a speedball, a combination of heroin and cocaine injected with the same syringe.

Overdoses are becoming prevalent all across the country among non-celebrities as well. With 467,000 people self-reporting as regular users, heroin dependency has doubled in the last 10 years. More than half of heroin users are women, and most of them are in their late 20s. While it used to be considered a street drug commonly used in urban areas, the trend has shifted dramatically. Many suburban and rural communities have reported overdose deaths due to heroin use. People from middle-class and upper-class neighborhoods are now susceptible to the drug that used to once be an issue among those in a lower socioeconomic status. This shift in demographics has shown that heroin use is becoming widespread and prevalent.

injecting heroin
Heroin by itself is dangerous and can kill those who use it. A central nervous system depressant, it can result in labored breathing and even death, if taken in copious amounts. If combined with other substances, the chances of death greatly increase, even if taken in just small doses. In fact, many heroin overdose deaths are attributed to numerous drugs in the system, or polydrug use. Drug interactions can have severe adverse effects on the body, including respiratory depression, which is one of the most common causes of death among drug users.

Some of the common drugs that abusers combine heroin with include:

  • Alcohol Reports show that nearly half of heroin overdose-related deaths involve alcohol in the system. This combination of substances only amplifies the effects on the body.
  • Benzodiazepines — Also known as tranquilizers, commonly prescribed benzodiazepines include Valium, Ativan and Xanax. When these drugs are combined with heroin, they interact in the body in such a way that the central nervous system shuts down, increasing the risk of death. 
  • CocaineWhile cocaine is a stimulant and heroin is a depressant, the combination of the two substances in the body can increase the risk of overdose. Known as “speedball,” the mixture of cocaine and heroin amplifies the effects of the feelings. Furthermore, cocaine wears off faster than heroin.
  • Prescription Opiates Prescription opiates are extremely similar to heroin and come from the same plant. Combining the two essentially involves taking a large dose of heroin. Overdosing on heroin and prescription opiates can result in death.
  • Tricyclic Antidepressants — Drugs such as Elavil, Tofinil and Silenor have been replaced by newer antidepressants. However, they can still result in death, causing cardiac arrhythmias, seizures and apnea.
  • Fentanyl One particularly concerning combination is fentanyl and heroin. Fentanyl is roughly 30–50 times more powerful than heroin, and even at a low dose, fentanyl-laced heroin can result in overdose and possibly death. Recently, more people have been using fentanyl. While many dealers use fentanyl to increase the potency of heroin and provide users with a strong hit, this combination presents a significant risk that can result in devastating consequences. Even more concerning now is that Mexican cartels have increased production of this lethal combination as well as a variant of fentanyl (called acetyl fentanyl) into the United States. Since the supply has soared, deaths have sharply increased. From late 2013 through 2014, there were about 700 deaths reported from fentanyl overdose alone.  
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Heroin Addiction was last modified: August 7th, 2017 by The Recovery Village