Heroin (diamorphine or diacetylmorphine) is an illicit opioid drug that is derived from the opium poppy (papaver soniferum) that was originally native to lower Mesopotamia (Southwest Asia, Iraq) and was cultivated in an early as 3,400 B.C. Cultivation eventually spread up to the Mediterranean and then on to Asia (also known as the Silk Road) where it ended up as the catalyst for the Opium Wars in the mid 1800’s.
Opium prospers in warm, dry climates and most of today’s opium poppies are grown in a 4,500 mile stretch of mountains that extend from central Asia through Afganistan, Pakistan, and Turkey. Some opium is now grown in Latin American, such as Columbia and Mexico.
Heroin was first synthesized in 1874 by Charles Romley Alder Wright, a physics researcher at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London, England. The substance was then refined further by the German company Bayer as an intended less-addictive alternative to morphine and originally used to treat coughs in tuberculosis patients. It was marketed under the brand name Heroin from 1898-1910.
The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 effectively controlled the sale and distribution of diacetylmorphine, allowing the drug to be prescribed and sold only for medical purposes. It was finally revealed that heroin was even more addictive than morphine, and then in 1924, the U.S. Congress banned its importation, manufacture, and sale. It is currently listed as a Schedule I substance, meaning it is not legal to use for any purpose.
The Illicit Production of Heroin
The process for making heroin can be summarized in the following steps:
Step 1: Grow and harvest flower seed pods from the opium poppy and extract the opium.
The flowers of the opium poppy are grown from seed in fields until the petals fall away from the seedpods, which are then harvested for opium processing.
The pod is then split enabling the sap to ooze out of the pod. A spatula is used to scrap the sap from the pod, which is then dried, and the seeds removed for the next season of cultivation. The sap is then pressed into a “brick” and wrapped in cloth or leaves and sold to a dealer. The packages are sent to a heroin-processing facility.
Step 2: Separate morphine from the sap.
To extract morphine from the opium sap, it is placed into boiling water with lime and the morphine separates and floats to the top of the water in a white band where it is then skimmed off.
This process should take at least a few hours but some ways of processing remove the morphine much quicker, resulting in a less pure product.
Variations of these steps are sometimes used in areas such as Mexico and Columbia which have to process heroin under rainy conditions. For example, the morphine extraction process can result in different forms of heroin, including a brown and “black tar” heroin version, which is much less pure than other forms.
Step 3: Create the morphine base.
The raw morphine is then made into a base, a brownish substance about the consistency of clay. To do this, the morphine is boiled with ammonia and filtered, then boiled again until it is reduced to a brown paste and dried into bricks.
Step 5: Make heroin from the morphine base.
The process of making heroin from morphine requires many chemicals that through mixing, boiling, and separating are employed to further purify and acetylate the morphine into the final product – a white powder known as heroin.
These substances may include the following:
- Acetic anhydride
- Sodium carbonate
- Hydrochloric acid
Many of these chemicals themselves are explosive and harmful to the human body in of themselves, so there is little room for error. For this reason, trying to “home cook” heroin is extremely hazardous and can result in a toxic solution.
Step 6: Cut and distribute.
The heroin is next sent to distributors to be sold to users on the black market. Dealers often cut the heroin with other drugs and substances, however, so they can increase their profits. Some of these may include:
- Sugar (sucrose)
- Powdered milk
Some of these additives can increase the risk of overdose. Fentanyl, for example, a synthetic opioid similar heroin but up to 50 times more powerful, the presence of which in recent years has significantly increased the drug overdose rate in the U.S.
Treatment for Heroin Addiction
Heroin addiction is a devastating and life-threatening condition that requires individualized, long-term treatment that focuses on the building of coping skills and gaining insight into the contributing factors to addiction.
Our center offers comprehensive, evidence-based treatment in both inpatient and outpatient formats. Our professional medical and mental health care are expertly trained to help our clients recover and provide them with the tools they need to sustain long-lasting sobriety.