Heroin (Drugs: The Straight Facts)

Carmen Ferreiro

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Heroin is a highly addictive drug, and its abuse has repercussions that extend far beyond the individual users. The health and social consequences of drug abuse—HIV/AIDS, violence, tuberculosis, fetal effects, crime, and disruptions in family, workplace, and educational environments—have a devastating impact on society and cost billions of dollars each year.

This is how Alan I. Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) describes heroin. Yet heroin—that is, pure heroin—is just a semi-synthetic alkaloid (organic substance from plants), a diacetyl derivative of morphine, a white powder as harmless looking as powdered sugar. Street heroin, however, is an entirely different matter, and it is this form of heroin that Leshner is speaking about.

Because heroin is illegal in the United States, it has become a black market commodity (product available illegally only) and, as such, its color, purity, and even its name have changed. On the street, heroin is called smack, horse, H, dope, skag, or junk. As in other commercial markets, the dealers give their product brand names like “Tango & Cash,” “DOA” (dead on arrival), “Body Bag” (no explanation needed), and the more subtle “Red Rum”—murder spelled backward. A “fix” (enough heroin for a single high) is usually bought in a glassine (thin transparent paper that resists air and grease) envelope with the brand name stamped on it.

Street heroin is far from pure. Every time it is traded down the distribution chain, it is “cut,” which means that it is mixed with other products to increase its weight and the profit of its sale. Some of these products are innocuous—for example, sugar, starch, powered milk, quinine, brick dust, and starch. Others are intrinsically harmful—for example, the harmful poison strychnine and the potentially dangerous talcum powder, which, when injected in a vein, does not dissolve in the bloodstream but forms little particles that can cause vein blockage. Sometimes heroin is laced with other drugs. Sometimes it is sold pure, without additives. This is even more dangerous since its potency may cause the unaware user to overdose and die. Ironically, among heroin buyers, the fact that a particular brand has caused death by overdose makes it more attractive, not less so. Overdose means, after all, a better product.

The color and consistency of the heroin available in the street varies, too. It ranges from a white or brownish powder to the black sticky substance sold mainly on the West Coast and known as Mexican black tar. Mexico is one of the three traditional regions where heroin is produced. The other two are the “golden triangle” in Southeast Asia (Laos, Thailand, Burma) and the “golden crescent” of the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran area. Recently, Central and South America have also joined the market.
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