Main type

Heroin is in fact a street name in itself, and is known as diacetylmorphine for medical purposes. However, as a drug with widespread use across the world, it also has a number of other street names by which it is known. These include “dope”, “junk”, “smack” and “skag” amongst many others, often varying by country or region.

There is also a sizable lexicon of slang terms associated with heroin related activities, and combinations of heroin with other drugs. “Chasing the dragon” for example refers to smoking heroin, while “cooking” it refers to mixing it with water to prepare it for injection into the veins. As with the names for the drug itself, there are a great many other street names related to heroin and heroin use.

Other Types

Heroin is in fact a street name in itself, and is known as diacetylmorphine for medical purposes. However, as a drug with widespread use across the world, it also has a number of other street names by which it is known. These include “dope”, “junk”, “smack” and “skag” amongst many others, often varying by country or region.

There is also a sizable lexicon of slang terms associated with heroin related activities, and combinations of heroin with other drugs. “Chasing the dragon” for example refers to smoking heroin, while “cooking” it refers to mixing it with water to prepare it for injection into the veins. As with the names for the drug itself, there are a great many other street names related to heroin and heroin use.

Major Effects

The main reason why people take heroin is for the feeling of euphoria and relaxation. Users will experience skin flushing, their limbs will feel heavy, and they will alternate between feeling wakeful and drowsy. However street heroin is associated with a range of negative side effects, both short term and long term. This is not helped by the fact that street heroin is often cut with other harmful chemicals, further increasing the danger of taking it.

Aside from the issues of addiction, repeated use of heroin can cause infection of the heart valves and lining, decreased function of the kidney and the liver, and chronic constipation. Injecting the drug into veins is one of the most immediate methods of getting it into the system, but over time repeatedly using the same vein will cause it to collapse, meaning new veins have to be found elsewhere in the body to inject into. Using needles to inject heroin also carries the risk of contracting diseases such as hepatitis and HIV, as well as other infections.

One of the most serious risks of heroin use is that of dependency and addiction. The body quickly develops a tolerance to the drug, meaning that increasingly high doses are required, eventually reaching a point where no euphoric feelings are present at all, with addicts using heroin just to stave off withdrawal symptoms.

For this reason, heroin has a high risk of overdose. Users have no way of knowing what the heroin is cut with, often harmful chemicals in unknown proportions. These chemicals, rather than the heroin itself, are often what prove fatal in the case of overdoses.

Production countries

Heroin is one of the most rigorously regulated drugs available, with a Schedule I classification in the US, a Class A classification in the United Kingdom, and similar regulation around the world. This, however, doesn’t entirely prevent the trafficking of the drug.

Heroin is derived from opium poppies, which are grown in parts of Asia, mostly in Afghanistan. A large proportion of the world’s poppy cultivation also originates from an area known as “The Golden Triangle”, which straddles parts of Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and China. Mexico and Colombia have also begun to grow poppies in increasing amounts in recent years, with Mexico now the second largest global exporter, supplying a large proportion of the US heroin market.

With the exception of Mexico, opium poppies are rarely synthesised into heroin in the same country in which they are grown. The process of refining the poppies into morphine, and then into diacetylmorphine is a long-winded process that consumes resources that subsistence cultures often cannot afford. Instead they are exported to other countries, where they are processed in heroin labs into the final product, before being shipped to the country in which they will be sold and used.

Trafficking of heroin carries the risk of hefty prison sentences, and in many South-East Asian countries is punishable by death. Heroin trafficking has for many decades been controlled largely by organised crime syndicates. In the first half of the 20th Century most of the illegal heroin trade was under the control of the Chinese Triads. However following the end of World War II, the Italian mafia began to manufacture the drug from heroin labs in Sicily. Sicily was ideally located geographically along the main trafficking route connecting Asia and Europe. The Soviet-Afghan War then contributed to increased poppy production in Afghanistan, with the money from such a lucrative crop going towards arms. Mexican and Colombian drug cartels control vast amounts of the heroin traffic in Central and South America.

Heroin use is distributed relatively evenly around the world, with markets in nearly every region. There are particularly large numbers of users in Russia and China, and considering their respective populations, also a large number in Pakistan and Iran. There are established heroin markets in Europe, Africa and the Americas, with users numbering in the millions in each region. In terms of the amount of heroin actually consumed, as of 2008 Europe (including Russia) was responsible for nearly half of all worldwide heroin consumption. North America accounted for roughly 6%.

Asian and Middle Eastern countries also have extraordinary consumption levels of opium, which for many is preferred to heroin, particularly in Iran. Nearly all European, Asian and African heroin originates from Asia, while nearly all North American and South American heroin originates from Mexico and Colombia.

Not all governments take the same approach to dealing with heroin addiction. Whilst the drug is outlawed in nearly every country, there are nevertheless programmes available designed to help addicts get off the drug. This involves supplying controlled doses to addicts on the basis that the symptoms of addiction and withdrawal can potentially be more effectively treated, whilst reducing the risk involved in using impure batches. It is thought that this arrangement could be far preferable to having drug users perpetuating the illegal drug market. Pioneered in Switzerland, this approach is now used in parts of Denmark, Canada, Holland, Germany and the UK with relative apparent success.

Facts and stats


  • Heroin is actually the street name for diacetylmorphine, a drug used medicinally as a painkiller.
  • It was first synthesised by Bayer, a German drug company in 1895 as an over-the-counter cough remedy. It was unwittingly marketed as being non-addictive, causing great embarrassment to the company when the contrary turned out to be emphatically the case.
  • It is deeply ingrained in popular culture, serving as the inspiration for many books, films and songs. Many high profile celebrities have suffered from heroin addiction, some fatally.
  • Heroin is one of the most addictive drugs available, and addiction to it can be enormously damaging to the body.
  • The opium poppies from which heroin is derived are only grown in a small number of countries, mostly in Asia. However an increasing amount now originates from Mexico and Colombia. As of 2008, Mexico was the second largest global supplier of opium, although it remains considerably behind Afghanistan, where most of the world’s heroin originates from.
  • Historically, heroin trafficking has been largely controlled by criminal syndicates, including the Chinese Triads, the Italian mafia and Mexican and Colombian drug cartels. This remains the case today.
  • As well as its use in hospitals to control pain, diacetylmorphine is also prescribed in some countries to heroin addicts as a means of aiding their recovery. By controlling the supply, the harmful effects of added chemicals and materials in street heroin can be negated. It also enables treatment for physiological and psychological symptoms of addiction and withdrawal to be administered.
  • Heroin manufacture is a complex process, with each ton of heroin produced requiring several tons of opium.


  • As of 2009, the global heroin market was thought to be worth roughly US$55 billion.
  • Afghanistan accounts for nearly 90% of all heroin production. At its peak in 2007, the country was producing over 8,000 tons of opium, although this amount has decreased slightly in the subsequent years.
  • In 2008, it was thought that there were nearly 12 million heroin users worldwide. Russia, the rest of Europe, the Americas, Africa and China all have heroin users numbering in the millions.
  • Of the 343 tons of heroin consumed worldwide in 2008, nearly half of that was in Europe, with 70 tons consumed in Russia alone.
  • In 2007, opium production reached nearly 9,000 tons, its highest ever level.
  • Over 3.5 million Americans are thought to have tried heroin.
  • The average American heroin addict spends upwards of $150 supporting their habit.
  • In 2009, 642kg of heroin were seized by the DEA.
  • Each kilogram of Afghan heroin requires approximately 7kg of Afghan poppies for its production.
  • Afghan poppies generally produce more opium than Myanmar poppies, where 10kg is required.
  • Roughly 14% of all drug-related hospital admissions involve heroin.
  • In England and Wales in 2006, heroin and morphine were contributing factors to 713 deaths, far outstripping those from any other illegal drug.

Addiction Signs

Heroin addiction is one of the most serious drug addictions that there is, and there are a number of signs to watch out for. The physiological effects of a heroin dose include slowed breathing, dry mouth, flushed skin and alternation between drowsy and alert states. After the effects wear off, users will experience withdrawal symptoms including cravings, depression, sweating, insomnia, nausea, fever, cold sweats, anxiety and excessive yawning or sneezing. These effects will vary depending on the user, the amount used and for how long, as well as their individual tolerance, and will generally set in within 6 to 24 hours of the last hit.

Severe heroin abuse can cause users to disengage from reality, and focus only on where the next hit is coming from and how to get it. Becoming withdrawn from normal routines, decreasing social interaction and losing interest in previously enjoyable activities can be signs of drug abuse. Heroin is notoriously addictive, and so addicts will go to extreme lengths to obtain it, sometimes resorting to illegal activity. Persistent financial troubles, lying to family and friends, and stealing money and possessions can all be potential indicators of heroin addiction.

Marks where the user has been injecting directly into veins, usually on the arms but potentially anywhere a vein can be found on the body, can potentially be a sign of heroin abuse. As dependency on the drug and tolerance to it worsen, the above symptoms may become more and more pronounced over time as the dosages taken increase.


Due to heroin’s addictive nature and the severe effects of withdrawal, a self-treating cold turkey approach, whilst possible, is likely to be a traumatic time for a heroin addict with little possibility of success. To that end it is always advisable to consult your doctor before embarking upon an attempt to recover. Even with the help of medical professionals, heroin is one of the most difficult drugs to overcome addiction to successfully.

In some countries it is possible to get prescribed diacetylmorphine to aid with the recovery process. This means that only pure doses of the drug will be administered under supervision, reducing the risk of adverse health effects associated with the harmful chemicals normally used to bulk out street heroin. Meanwhile, the dosage can be gradually reduced, and some of the symptoms of withdrawal treated medically. This however, is not an available treatment in all countries. Methadone, an opiate substitute, can have similar results. Using an appropriate methadone dosage regularly can help to stave off withdrawal symptoms, and enable a user to engage in regular activities and reintegrate into normal life. The drawback to methadone treatment is that at some point the user must eventually quit the methadone itself, although there are other drugs available to ease this transition.

The withdrawal symptoms begin after about 12 hours from the last heroin dose, and will be at their worst after 2 or 3 days, lasting for upwards of a week. Whilst not life-threatening unless there are other complications, the effects from quitting heroin can be enormously distressing and embarrassing for the recovering addict.

Trained medical professionals can help to ease the transition, and address some of the symptoms such as insomnia and nausea. This ensures that the addict recovers in a safe environment, without the risk of harming themselves or others.

The most important thing in assisting recovery from heroin addiction for any user is ensuring that they cannot get another hit. For this reason, hospitals or dedicated detox and rehab clinics are recommended. Behavioural and cognitive therapies can be administered at such facilities in conjunction with medical treatment of the symptoms. This can help to address the underlying causes of heroin addiction, which can often be complex. There are a great many issues that could potentially have led to dependency on the drug in the first place, and relapses can occur if they are not dealt with. Job status, social interactions and overall wellbeing when combined with an addictive predisposition can all be factors that contribute to heroin abuse. Many heroin users will require support for months, possibly even years after stopping the drug.

irrespective of the course of treatment taken, recovering from heroin addiction is never easy for anyone. However, the fact that so many people succeed is indicative that it is well within the reach of any addict with sufficient determination. For the best chance at recovery, it is recommended that first an addict consults their doctor to discuss the best approach for them. Usually this will be a multi-faceted treatment that involves both dealing with the physical symptoms of withdrawal, and the underlying factors that contributed to addiction.