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Heroin is made from the opium poppy, which is mostly grown in southern Asia. The process of making it involves several different types of chemicals and includes many steps.
Afghanistan grows the lion’s share of the world’s heroin. But most of the heroin in the United States comes from Mexico and South America.
As heroin makes its way through the supply chain, it is cut with substances that either enhance the effects of the drug or dilute it to bulk up a batch and help the dealer make a larger profit. Some of these cutting agents, such as fentanyl, are extremely dangerous.
Heroin begins with opium poppies, which are mainly grown in dry, warm climates in southern Asia in mountainous regions from Turkey through Pakistan and as far south as Laos.1
When the poppy flowers bloom, the petals of the flowers fall off, revealing an egg-shaped pod. The pods are cut, and a milky sap is extracted. The sap is pure opium. As the sap trickles out, it becomes darker in color and thicker until it is a sticky brown or black substance. A farm worker collects the substance and forms it into bricks, cakes, or balls and wraps them in plastic or leaves.1
Morphine is commonly refined close to the poppy fields. The opium sap is mixed with lime in boiling water, separating the organic materials that sink to the bottom. The morphine floats to the top like a white scum. The morphine is collected, heated again with ammonia, filtered, and boiled again. The eventual product is a brown paste. Once that is dried, the base for morphine is finished. The base can be smoked in a pipe.1
To make heroin, morphine is mixed with acetic anhydride and heated for 6 hours. These two substances combine to form diacetylmorphine. The diacetylmorphine is mixed with water and chloroform, and the solution is then drained and sodium carbonate is added to make the heroin solidify. The heroin is then filtered out of the carbonate solution with activated charcoal and purified with alcohol. This mixture is then heated, so the alcohol evaporates. Finally, it is purified with hydrochloric acid, with the finished product a fluffy, white powder.1
The United Nations keeps track of the main heroin- and opium-producing nations. According to the 2017 World Drug Report, the top-producing countries are:
Of the 10,500 tons of opium produced worldwide in 2017, it is estimated that 1,100 to 1,400 tons remained unprocessed for consumption as opium, while the rest was manufactured into heroin, resulting in between 700 and 1,050 tons of heroin manufactured worldwide—with about 550-900 tons produced in Afghanistan.3
Even though Afghanistan may manufacture a large percentage of the world’s heroin, much of the heroin consumed in the United States is produced in Mexico and South America (mainly Colombia).
Opium poppy cultivation and heroin production in Mexico have both increased in recent years. The Congressional Research Service estimates that Mexican poppy cultivation increased by 35% between 2016 and 2017, to about 44,100 hectares. The country produced about 111 metric tons of heroin in 2017.4
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, heroin purity in the United States can vary by source. Purity increased from some sources between 2015 and 2016 (latest data) but decreased from others.
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As heroin makes its way from the source of production, through dealers, to users, it is cut with adulterants and diluents.
Substances used to cut heroin include:
Dealers use these substances for different reasons. Caffeine, for example, helps heroin to vaporize at a lower temperature to aid smoking. Tramadol shares many similar effects with heroin. Sugars and lead are used to add bulk and dilute the heroin. And quinine has a bitter taste that can disguise poor quality heroin while also giving users a similar “rush.”6
Other diluents are chalk, brick dust, powdered milk, and starch, which do not cause any noticeable effects in users but can cause health problems.6
Like tramadol, fentanyl shares similar effects to heroin. But it is much more powerful. Fentanyl can be substituted for heroin or added to it, but this is very dangerous and often leads to overdose. Synthetic opioid overdose deaths—a category that includes other drugs such as Tramadol but is mostly made up of fentanyl—increased 73% between 2014 and 2015, from 5,544 to 9,580. In 2016, the number of deaths rose 103%, to 19,413.7
The terms adulterants and diluents are often confused.
Some sources refer to both adulterants and diluents as adulterants. Even though they serve different purposes, they are both added to heroin on purpose or as a result of the production/distribution process.8
All drugs in the opioid class have similar effects to heroin. Other opioids include opium, morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl, and codeine. Effects of these drugs include pain relief, cough suppression, a sense of well-being, drowsiness, constipation, difficulty concentrating, slowed breathing, and apathy. Like heroin, these drugs can also lead to physical and psychological dependence and fatal overdoses.9
All drugs in the opioid class have similar effects to heroin.
As mentioned above, some of these drugs, such as Tramadol and fentanyl, can be substituted or cut into heroin.
The legal drug kratom is sometimes called “herbal heroin” because in large doses it has effects like those of opioids, including sedation, drowsiness, and constipation. It has become popular in the U.S. as an allegedly natural way for people struggling with heroin addiction to end their substance abuse. But it, too, can be addictive.9,10
It is very difficult to tell pure heroin from heroin that is contaminated with fentanyl or another harmful substance. Dealers rarely disclose what they have put into their drugs during the production process. Test kits claim to be able to determine the purity of heroin, but even these are not 100% accurate.
Heroin is dangerous regardless of whether it is pure or contaminated. If you or someone you know is abusing heroin and is ready to get clean, look into rehab options in your city or another location, if you’d prefer to travel for treatment. A substance abuse rehabilitation center can give you the tools to stop using heroin and avoid the health consequences of using the drug as well as avoid an overdose.