Heroin is a widely abused, potent opioid drug synthesized from morphine. In the 19th century, heroin was developed as a replacement for morphine, but doctors soon found that heroin itself was extremely addictive. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) now lists heroin as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning that it is very dangerous and addictive. It also has no legitimate medical use.
The drug is typically injected intravenously, which is one of the fastest methods of administration. Heroin acts on the body and brain within a few minutes of injection, and the high wears off within about 30 minutes. This rapid cycling of euphoria and comedown means that a person struggling with addiction to heroin is likely to take several doses per day to maintain a consistent high. This can lead to dependence, long-term damage to the body, and overdose.
By itself, heroin is potent and dangerous; however, federal agents have found a surge in fentanyl abuse related to the opioid drug epidemic. Fentanyl has been found laced with a wide range of intoxicating substances, including cocaine, but it is most often found mixed with heroin or sold in place of heroin.
Heroin has been around for a long time. The drug was originally synthesized by Bayer in 1874 and touted as a safer, less addictive form of morphine. However, the drug was found to be more dangerous and addictive than morphine (which is still prescribed to treat pain), and it was banned in 1914. Heroin is only a street drug now, and it is rarely sold in its pure form. The pure version is a white powder with a bitter taste, but heroin found on the street is whitish or dark brown because of impurities in the illicit manufacturing process.
This potent narcotic is most commonly injected into the veins, so it can be quickly absorbed by the bloodstream and sent to the brain. Typically, the high peaks at 7-8 seconds, and the drowsy or relaxing effects, along with side effects, can last for about 30 minutes. Smoking can take about 15 minutes to affect the body.
“Nodding” is the most common side effect from heroin use. This occurs when the person alternates rapidly between being unconscious and being awake. Other side effects include:
- Respiratory depression, shallow or irregular breathing, or slowed breathing
- Hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, leading to organ damage and brain death
- Changes to heart rate and blood pressure
- Liver disease
- Chronic constipation
A study from the early 2000s noted that 54 percent of people who struggled with heroin addiction for a long time experienced a nonfatal overdose at least once. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) noted that, in 2011, 4.2 million Americans, ages 12 and older, reported heroin use at least once in their lives. About 23 percent of those individuals struggled with addiction to and dependence on heroin.
Additionally, people who use drugs intravenously, most commonly heroin, are more likely to suffer infections, such as bacterial infections, HIV, and hepatitis B and C.
Fentanyl-Laced Heroin Origins
Fentanyl was developed in the 1950s to treat severe, chronic pain. It is still a Schedule II drug, according to the Controlled Substances Act, because it has an important role in medical treatment. Illicit sale and abuse of
fentanyl was first reported in the 1970s.
Since 2013, there have been reports of fentanyl mixed into heroin leading to serious overdose, which is often deadly. Statistics from January through April 2016 in British Columbia showed that 56 percent of all drug overdoses, including overdoses on cocaine and heroin, involved fentanyl mixed into these substances. In the early 2000s, few people overdosed on opioids laced with heroin; however, between 2015 and 2016, there were 29,000 deaths from opioid drugs, and many of them involved heroin laced with fentanyl.
Fentanyl-Laced Heroin Potency
Heroin laced with fentanyl is also synthesized from morphine, but it is between 50 and 100 times more potent. This means it is stronger than heroin, and it can create an intense, addictive, and dangerous euphoria. While some people seek out this high, most people who purchase heroin do not know they are purchasing a drug laced with fentanyl. When narcotics are mixed together, it increases the risk of overdose; when the individual does not know there is a more potent substance in heroin, they cannot dose within their tolerance, and they are much more likely to suffer a fatal overdose.
Fentanyl-Laced Heroin Side Effects
The most notable side effect from fentanyl-laced heroin is depressed breathing, often related to drug overdose. Depressed breathing means that the person is taking shallow, slow breaths, so the body does not get enough oxygen. Hypoxia, or lack of oxygen to the brain, means that the brain begins to shut down organ systems; it then eventually begins to die.
Get Help for Heroin Addiction
Heroin by itself is dangerous and addictive, but more people who struggle with drug addiction and substance abuse are purchasing heroin laced with fentanyl, fentanyl instead of heroin, or other dangerous combinations without knowing what they are buying. Get help overcoming drug addiction to avoid long-lasting, or even irreversible, side effects, and remember that the combination of fentanyl and heroin can be deadly.