Heroin—known by nicknames such as Big H, Dog, Black tar, Smac, Puppy Chow, and Horse—is a highly addictive drug derived from morphine, which is obtained from the opium poppy. Heroin can be injected, smoked in a water pipe, mixed in a marijuana joint or regular cigarette, inhaled as smoke through a straw (known as “chasing the dragon”), or snorted as powder through the nose.[i] It is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, which means it has no currently accepted medical use but has a high potential for abuse.[ii]
Once heroin crosses the blood-brain barrier, it is converted to morphine and binds rapidly to opioid receptors, causing a “rush” that is affected by the amount taken and the rapidity with which it enters the brain and binds to receptors. Opioid receptors are located throughout the body. Receptors in the brain stem, when activated by heroin, can depress breathing and cause overdose. Activation in the limbic system, which controls emotion, produces intense feelings of pleasure, and can block pain messages transmitted through the spinal cord from the body.[iii] In short, our bodies are very receptive to it, and that is why it is so highly addictive and dangerous.
Today’s heroin comes in small, cheap packages—sometimes small balloons. It is often cut with other drugs as it changes hands from the Mexican and Columbian cartels to the dealer on the corner.[iv] Buyers do not know exactly what they are getting, creating an even more life-threatening scenario. Yet, many people who use heroin talk about how they loved heroin instantly the first time they tried it. Many others will go on to describe how their addiction progressed rapidly after the first time.
Regular heroin use changes the functioning of the brain. One result is tolerance, in which more of the drug is needed to achieve the same intensity of effect. Another result is dependence, characterized by the need to continue use of the drug to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
[iii] Heroin: Abuse and Addiction. (2005). In National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved from http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin-abuse-addiction/what-heroin.
[iv] McDonald, Brent. (2013, July 19). Heroin Documentary. A Deadly Dance (video). The New York Times.
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