The media often portrays heroin users as violent or out of control, but is there any truth to this image?

Are people who have heroin use disorders violent? The fast answer to this common question is both yes and no, because of direct and indirect reasons.

Whether or not people who use heroin are violent depends on many different factors including personal characteristics, what their drug-seeking behaviors look like and how the drug impacts their brain. The following provides a more in-depth answer to the commonly searched question, “Are heroin addicts violent?”

How Does Heroin Work on The Brain?

When heroin is taken, as with other opioids, it binds to the opioid receptors found throughout the brain including in the limbic system, prefrontal cortex and the brainstem. What happens first is that a person feels a euphoric rush, and then that’s followed by a period of deep relaxation or sedation.

When someone takes heroin, dopamine is released in a very complex manner in multiple areas of the brain. All of this interacts with the reward centers of the brain, and this is why people continue to abuse heroin. They have experienced reward in the form of euphoria, and so the brain then views heroin use as something positive that should be repeated.

However, as this continues, heroin use becomes a compulsive habit. Because of the compulsion to continue using heroin, violence can occur.

Drug-Seeking Behaviors and Violence

With any drug, not just heroin specifically, there is a likelihood of violence. With heroin, this violence isn’t associated with a heroin high, but the person may become violent as part of their drug-seeking behaviors. Unfortunately, someone who is addicted to heroin will do anything to continue getting it.

As a heroin addiction builds and a person develops a tolerance to the drug, they need more of it to achieve the desired effects. Most people who are addicted to drugs experience money problems because of excessive spending on drugs. When this happens, a person may borrow money from friends and family, and in many cases, steal it. People who are addicted to heroin may also lose their job because of their addiction, making them even more desperate for money.

Once someone on heroin has exhausted other routes of obtaining money to supply themselves with drugs, they may begin participating in violent acts to get money, including robbery. They may also exhibit violent behaviors toward people they know, including friends and family, as a way to get money to buy more heroin.

Another way to answer the questions, “Are heroin addicts violent?” and “Are heroin users violent?” is to look at how the drug impairs mental function, both when the person is on it and also when they’re not. A person may not necessarily be violent when they’re on heroin, but because of the way it reduces mental inhibitions and impairs judgment, they could exhibit violent behaviors.

Are Heroin Users Violent During Withdrawal?

It’s important to consider what happens during heroin withdrawal. Withdrawal from heroin is physically and mentally painful, and can have many unpleasant side effects. Psychosis is one potential side effect of withdrawal from heroin and other opioids. When this happens, the person may lose touch with reality and behave irrationally. Psychosis is marked by symptoms like hallucinations, delusions (false beliefs), agitation, anxiety and mood changes.

To sum up the answer to the questions, “Are heroin addicts violent?” and “Are heroin users violent?” it’s yes in some cases, but usually in an indirect way. Heroin itself might not necessarily make someone violent, but the effects of addiction and drug-seeking behaviors, as well as clouded judgement, can lead to violent behaviors. Additionally, when someone experiences withdrawal, particularly if they experience psychosis, they may behave irrationally.

If you or a loved one live with addiction or are using drugs recreationally and want to stop, The Recovery Village® can help. Reach out to one of our representatives today to learn how you can start on your path to recovery.

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Editor – Renee Deveney
As a contributor for Advanced Recovery Systems, Renee Deveney is passionate about helping people struggling with substance use disorder. With a family history of addiction, Renee is committed to opening up a proactive dialogue about substance use and mental health. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Conor Sheehy, PharmD, BCPS, CACP
Dr. Sheehy completed his BS in Molecular Biology at the University of Idaho and went on to complete his Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) at the University of Washington in Seattle. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.