How Is Heroin Produced?
The illicit drug heroin comes from the opium poppy, a flower originally found in parts of Asia and now grown and processed in places like India, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and parts of South America. Afghanistan, in particular, has a high level of illicit heroin production.
Many people aren’t aware of the process involved to turn the potent element of this flower into the addictive drug – a process that involves a number of steps and chemicals to get a form of heroin that is as pure as possible. Not following the process accurately, or knowing how each step works, can result in a product that contains a number of impurities that make the drug even more dangerous for human consumption than it is in its “pure” form. In addition, many forms of street heroin are “cut” with other substances to dilute the product and make more money for the dealers.
Ultimately, the goal of making heroin is to create a high-potency form of opium that results in a quick, intense high. This drug comes with a very high risk of addiction and ill health effects.
According to information from the television program Frontline, the first person who made heroin did so by accident through boiling morphine and acetic anhydride, a common chemical, for several hours. The resultant substance was further refined by a German company and introduced under the brand name of heroin. This substance was originally used as a cough suppressant, much as modern-day codeine is used; it eased the discomfort of tuberculosis patients.
However, once the highly addictive nature of heroin was recognized – it has been argued that it is more quickly addictive than medically used morphine – it began to be controlled.
The Illegal Production of Heroin
A streamlined, specialized process for heroin production summarized in the following steps.
Step 1: Grow and harvest opium flower seed pods.
In opium-producing fields, the flowers of the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, are grown from seed until the petals fall away from the small, egg-shaped seedpods. The pods are then harvested for opium extraction and processing.
According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Museum, the flowers are best grown in dry, warm climates, as too much moisture can affect the chemical content of the sap, making a lower quality opium. This is the reason that production mainly occurs throughout much of Central Asia and drier regions of the Middle East. However, the flowers are also grown in Colombia and Mexico.
Step 2: Extract the opium from the pod.
According to an explanation from Frontline, the pod is split using a special knife. This split enables the sap – a thick, gum-like substance – to ooze out of the pod. A special spatula is then used to scrape the gum out of the pod. The pod is then dried, and the seeds are removed for the next planting season.
The extracted sap is pressed into a brick-shaped form and then wrapped in cloth or leaves to be sold to a dealer and sent, through the black market, to a heroin-processing facility. Many of these facilities are close to the original fields, because the raw sap is harder to transport and smuggle than the result of the next steps, the morphine base.Step 3: Extract morphine from the opium sap.
To separate the morphine from the other elements of opium, the gum-like substance is mixed into boiling water with lime (calcium oxide, made from limestone). This separates the morphine, which floats to the top of the water in a white band, from the organic waste of the opium gum, which sinks to the bottom. The morphine can then be skimmed from the top, and the waste is disposed of.
Often, this mixture is left overnight to enable complete separation of the morphine from the waste. However, in some processing methods, the morphine is removed from the mixture almost immediately. This can result in a higher level of impurity of the final product.
Step 4: Create the morphine base.
The white raw morphine goes through a few more steps to be made into morphine base, a brown substance the consistency of clay that, over history, has been smoked to get a morphine high. To create this substance, the morphine extracted from the opium sap is boiled with ammonia and filtered, then boiled again until it is reduced to a brown paste. This paste is then dried into bricks of morphine base.
A similarly produced base is used to make legal, medical morphine and other opioid painkillers and medicines. However, legally produced morphine is carefully monitored for safety and tracked by governments who use the medications. Heroin production, because it is an illicit process, does not have these assurances of safety and quality.
Step 5: Make heroin from the morphine base.
The complex process of creating heroin from morphine base involves multiple chemicals that – through mixing, boiling, and separating over a number of steps – are used to further purify and acetylate the morphine base. These chemicals include:
- Acetic anhydride
- Sodium carbonate
- Hydrochloric acid
Many of these chemicals, such as ether and hydrochloric acid, can interact to cause an explosive reaction. As a result, this process can be extremely dangerous. The chemicals themselves are also harmful to the human body if ingested. For this reason, attempts to “home-cook” heroin can often result in a poisonous solution. The final result of the process of mixing the morphine with the acetic anhydride and refining it through these steps is the soft white powder recognized as heroin.
Step 6: Cut and distribute.
The refined heroin is then sent to distributors to be sold to users on the illicit market. However, distributors often cut the heroin with other substances so they can make more money off a smaller amount of pure heroin. Live Science describes some of the substances that may cut heroin, including:
- Sugar (sucrose)
- Powdered milk
Some of these additives can make the heroin even more dangerous; for example, fentanyl is another type of opiate that can result in overdose. Acetaminophen, on the other hand, can lead to overdose through causing quicker absorption of the heroin.
The goal of those who make, refine, and distribute heroin is to make money off users. To this end, they seek to sell the least amount of product for a high price, which is what leads to cutting. However, they will make sure there is enough of the drug in the mixture to help the individual develop and maintain an addiction, which brings customers back for more and more, contributing to a steady demand that results in continued production of this dangerous, addictive substance.
As opium production has spread, variations in these steps have risen. For example, while the opium sap is left in the water/lime mixture overnight to extract morphine in Asian production, Mexican and Colombian production are often not able to do this due to rainy conditions. The changes in production across different areas result in different kinds of heroin, including a brown powder form and a type known as black tar heroin, which has a higher level of impurity. Because methods vary and sources are often unknown, a person can never quite be sure of the purity or safety of the drugs obtained.
To avoid the risks of obtaining cut, tainted, or impure heroin (or any heroin), a person can seek help to recover from heroin addiction and decrease the chances of drug use injury, illness, or overdose. To get help, contact a reputable, research-based treatment program and start on the path to detox, treatment, and recovery that will result in long-term abstinence.