Research Paper

Katherine Adams


Heroin Abuse

            Drug abuse is an increasing problem worldwide. Within America alone, drug abuse is the number one health problem and substance abuse causes more death and illness than any other preventable condition. Illegal drug usage costs at least 414 billion dollars a year in the United States, due to arrests, health issues and lack of productivity (Langworth 18). More than one million people a year are arrested due just to drugs.  This statistic has given the United States a bad reputation world wide as having the second highest and fastest growing incarceration rate in the world, with 60 percent of the offenses drug related (Langworth 19). The psychoactive narcotic heroin, drug name of Diamorphine, is a very serious drug that is on the rise for abuse. It has been predicted that the heroin addicted population in the United States is between 750,000 to one million people (  Eleven million people worldwide were abusing heroin in 2005, and now that number is projected to be higher (Langworth 105). Drug abuse starts early, with at least fifty percent of teenagers gaining easy access to alcohol and marijuana, also known as “the gateway drugs”. Once these gateways are open for experimentation,  harder drugs like heroin become thirty four percent more likely to be used according to CASA (Langworth 99). Most heroin users will not seek out help for their drug problem, causing society issues socially and economically.

Properties of opium have been known throughout history. There has been archeological evidence of opium usage in South East Asia as a medicinal tool as well as a drug that they exported all over the world for at least six thousand years (Emmett 146). In 1898, heroin was introduced by the Bayer Drug Company located in Germany. Heroin was to be a morphine derivative to help eliminate pain in patients. The name came from the German word heroisch, meaning “powerful”, which was a good predictor of the drugs strength and potential destruction (Levinthal 123).  Heroin has been reported as three times stronger than morphine, which it was created to replace for medical purposes, with no dependence forming properties known.  The first usage for heroin was as a safe cough suppressant, relieving chest discomfort resulting from conditions such as pneumonia and tuberculosis (Levinthal 123).  It was not discovered until 1910 that heroin had more potential for drug abuse than morphine.

Heroin has been exported out of the “Golden Triangle” region of the Asian countries as well as out of the “Golden Crescent” region of eastern Mediterranean (Emmett 146).  In more recent years, heroin has made its way into the United States by being smuggled in from South America, predominantly Columbia and Mexico.  The passing of the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914 made opiates such as heroin controlled substances in the United States (  In 1961, the U.S. started to crack down on drug abuse by trying to stop the smuggling of heroin from other regions into the country.  Ultimately, the anti- smuggling rules caused a shortage of heroin on the streets for purchase, which in turn caused the price of available heroin to increase substantially and criminal behavior to also rise as people needed a way to pay for their drug habits (Levinthal 125).  According to United States law, heroin is a schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning that the drug has a high potential for abuse and no real benefit in the medical world for use (  Using heroin is a crime that has jail time up to twenty five years as well as a fine of up to 500,000 dollars associated with it (Mezinski 92).  Heroin abuse is a very serious matter.

Heroin is a opiate that comes from the resin of the poppy plant. It also has the street slang names of smack, junk, brown sugar, dope, horse, and skunk (Gracer 140). Heroin has two acetyl groups joined chemically to the basic morphine molecule. Acetyl is a functional group in chemistry with a methyl group bonded to a carbonyl for the formula of COH3. This structure makes heroin a fat soluble molecule, a consequence that allows the drug to be absorbed quickly into the brain. Once in the brain, the acetyl group breaks off and the molecule acts just like morphine does (Levinthal 124). Heroin is more dangerous than morphine because of its ability to cross the brain barrier quickly. Endorphins are the brains natural opiate giving a natural high when exercising. Endorphins have receptor sites in the brain where they fit into when needed to stop the pain the body may be feeling. As pain increases, more endorphins are released. Opiates also fit into the endorphin receptor sites, blocking the natural pain killers, creating relaxation, pain relief and pleasure (Gracer 123). Because of this ability to create false highs, heroin is  physically and psychologically addicting, creating the connection between the body and the drug quickly (Mezinski 63).

Heroin has become a substitute for pain medication addicts because it is less expensive and the high is better overall, longer and more intense (Gracer 140). For the most part, there are two main types of heroin available, fine white powder that can also be in the form of tablets, clear liquid and smoke-able granules predominantly found from Colombia. The second form is “black tar” that is from Mexico ( Heroin creates a high in users with euphoria, peace, and freedom from worry and pain (Emmett 145).  Physiologically, heroin can cause the body to have depressed respiration, severe constipation, nausea, vomiting, loss of body conditioning, and overall poor health. The drug addiction puts such a strain on the body that almost every part is affected with long term damage. The heart can develop an abnormal heart rate, heart attack, collapsed veins from shooting up repeatedly with a needle. Endocarditis can also occur, which is a bacterial infection of the tissue lining the inside of the heart and heart valves where they become inflamed, red and swollen (Emmett 145). The respiratory system shows slowed breathing and air blocked from the lungs. The kidneys as well as the liver experience strain and damage which can lead to transplant. The brain circuitry becomes altered from long term use, which can cause permanent impairment mentally (Emmett 145). A  very serious concern for IDU’s, or injection drug users, is associated with needle usage itself.  Injection drug users  can suffer from collapsed veins as well as deadly and dangerous diseases like HIV and hepatitis B and C from dirty needles. Necrotizing fasciitis can occur, which is when skin and tissue is destroyed due to an infection around the injection site (

Because heroin is so physically as well as psychologically addictive, stopping use of the drug can be near impossible. Detox, or the process of ridding the body of a particular substance, is not a treatment for addiction but rather used in tandem with other treatment forms to help with the physical symptoms of withdrawal ( Dependence is created very quickly with heroin use, where the body craves more drugs. Tolerance is developed where higher levels of heroin are needed to achieve the same high, even going as far as needing regular doses of the drug just to feel normal (Emmett 153). Withdrawal symptoms can be similar to that of the flu, with muscle aches, sweating, cramps and stiff joints, runny nose, sore eyes and throat, diarrhea, and headache. Symptoms of withdrawal can start occurring around 16 to 24 hours after last heroin dose and can last up to 7 to 14 days until the drug is out of the system.  The phrase “going cold turkey” has been used in relation to an individual stopping the use of psychoactive drugs, mainly because the person’s skin becomes pale,  clammy and cold, just like a dead turkey (Emmett 145). Few users ever recover due to the fact that it is easier to ingest more drugs than it is to suffer through withdrawal.

Methadone was introduced in 1947 as a synthetic  analgesic opiate drug that has the chemical formula of C21H27NO. It was originally used as a pain management tool for chronic issues, but has now become associated with the long term treatment of heroin abuse. Methadone is inexpensive and long acting, so the drug effects can be felt up to a day with only one dose. It can be taken orally or through an injection, but just like with heroin, tolerance and dependence can form with continued use (Gracer 139). Methadone Maintenance Treatment (MMT) clinics have been used to combat heroin abuse, with people coming in daily to receive methadone.  The MMT has not been as successful as was expected due to people’s poor attitudes about public setting, lack of anonymity, and no personal attention, not to mention the effects of methadone being addictive (Gracer 56). The process seemed to be taking one illegal drug and swapping it for a legal less expensive yet still adverse drug.  More recently Buprenorphine has been seen as a new alternative to fighting heroin addiction. Buprenorphine medication can help treat heroin addiction by resetting brain receptors damaged by chronic exposure to opiates, stopping the craving and relieving pain (Gracer 34). Addicts who really want to stop using like buprenorphine due to the one on one care they receive from doctors to get the drug.

Heroin is a very serious drug to be getting involved in. People use it once just to have the experience or feel the high, when in actuality they are creating a very fast physical as well as physiological dependence that is very hard to break. Overall, heroin seems to be a lifestyle not just a drug, and once an individual starts they become hooked.  For the most part, the only way out of the addiction is death.

Works Cited

Emmett, David and Graeme Nice.  Understanding Street Drugs.  British Library Cataloging          Publication; Great Britian, 2006. 335 pgs.

Gracer, Richard I. A New Prescription for Addiction. Library of Congress Cataloging Publication;

California, 2007. 368 pgs.

Langwith, Jacqueline; Drug Abuse. Greenhaven Press; Michigan, 2007.  128pgs.

Levinthal, Charles F. Drugs, Behavior and Modern Society. 7th edition. Pearson Education Inc.;    Boston, 2012. 444 pgs.

Mezinski, Pierre and Melissa Daly. Drugs Explained. Amulet Books; New York, 2004. 111 pgs. National Rehab, 2006. Drug Enforcement Administration U.S.A., 2012.  Almanac of Policy Issues, 2003. Jennifer Lloyd, Office of National Drug            Control Policy.


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