pile of bags filled with heroin

How Is Heroin Made?

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Heroin, also known as a horse, black tar, Big H, hell dust, or smack, is an opioid drug with strong addictive potential.1,2 People using heroin can inject, smoke, or snort heroin.

The impact of heroine abuse can be felt across the United States with the number of people using heroin steadily rising since 2007.13

Due to its potentially life-threatening effects and highly addictive nature, it can be helpful to know about where heroin comes from, what ingredients are in heroin, how it’s used, and how it affects the brain and body. With this knowledge, you may better understand the importance of staying away from heroin and its potential for abuse.

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is an opioid drug produced from the substance morphine, which naturally occurs in the seed pods of different types of opium plants. These plants are most often found in the southern parts of Asia, Mexico, and Colombia.2

The different ingredients in heroin can result in 3 different variations of the drug, including white, brown, and black tar heroin.2 Heroin is sometimes mixed with other substances, like sugars, starch, powdered milk, or quinine, which may alter the effects on the body.11

The effects of heroin can include:2

  • A rush of euphoria.
  • Flushed skin.
  • Sleepiness.
  • Heavy limbs.
  • Itching.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Clouded thinking.

Where Does Heroin Come From?

Heroin is a derivative of morphine, an opiate substance extracted from the opium poppy.2 These plants thrive in warm, dry climates, and most opium poppies grow in a stretch of mountains that runs through southern Asia from Turkey through Pakistan and Laos.

Most of the supply of heroin in the United States comes from Mexico where Mexican criminal organizations are the primary suppliers and producers of illegal drugs.10

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, opium is produced in around 50 countries, but production is primarily in:9

  • Afghanistan (201,000 hectares under cultivation in 2016).
  • Myanmar (55,000 hectares in 2015).
  • Mexico (26,100 hectares in 2016).
  • Laos (5,700 hectares in 2015).

How is Heroin Produced?

Heroin production begins with farmers who plant opium poppy seeds. After about 3 months, the poppies bloom. The pod of the poppy flower produces a milky fluid, which is the source of raw opium. Farmers split the pod with a special knife to harvest the opium, which quickly turns into a sticky brownish-black sap. The sap can be made into bricks, balls, or cakes and wrapped in leaves or plastic for storage.5

Opium merchants and brokers refine the bricks of sap in refineries. During this process, much of the product actually turns to waste at the bottom of the refining barrels, while morphine forms at the top.5 Further mixing and filtering result in a brown paste that is left to dry in the sun before it is sold and used as an illicit substance.5

Types of Heroin

In past years, street heroin was impure and cut with many other substances. In the mid-1990s, a purer form of heroin emerged that was easier to smoke and snort. This increased purity led to a rise in use as many people were previously scared of using the drug via injection because of the potential for contracting diseases such as hepatitis or HIV from sharing needles.5

There are many different types of heroin on the street. Typically, a lighter color indicates greater purity. The main types of heroin are as follows:2,6

  • White heroin is the purest form of the drug. Most users snort or inject it. White heroin is difficult to smoke due to its high melting point.
  • Black tar heroin is common in the western U.S. It is a gummy substance that a user will melt or dissolve into solution and then inject. Some users smoke black tar heroin. Black tar is the least refined form of heroin and is not always black. It can be dark orange or dark brown.
  • Brown powder heroin is more refined than black tar, but it is still not as pure as white powder. Users seldom inject brown powder heroin, as it does not dissolve easily in water. Most users smoke it.

What Is Heroin Made Of?

Heroin is made of morphine derived from opium poppy plants, but is often cut with other substances. Producers often do this to increase profit or alter the effects of heroin.2 Some of the most common products used to cut heroin include:

  • Powdered milk, sugar, baking soda, caffeine, cocaine, and starch.4
  • Quinine, a drug with hypotensive and other cardiovascular effects that may mimic some of the “rush” associated with heroin use.7
  • Fentanyl, an opioid 80 times more potent than morphine, combined with heroin can have deadly results, as it can lead to profound respiratory depression.8

Trafficking and Smuggling

Most heroin in the U.S. first enters from Mexico through California, Texas, and Arizona. Cartels traffic most of the heroin from Mexico and Colombia.3

Much of the heroin transported to the U.S. is being found in the Great Lakes, Midwest, and Northeast regions, and areas that have been most affected by the opioid crisis.3 Much of the heroin coming from Mexico arrives hidden in parts of cars, SUVs, and trucks.3 These smaller amounts of heroin in personal vehicles do not usually attract as much attention as a large truck carrying many kilos.

Regardless of the size of the vehicle, interstates are the preferred route of distribution into other parts of the U.S. The cartels also use crude tunnels to bring in heroin from Mexico.3

Southwest Asian heroin is limited in the U.S. due to its far distance, but can be found in larger amounts in Africa and Asia.3


  1. Drug Enforcement Administration. Drug fact sheets: Heroin.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021). Heroin DrugFacts.
  3. U.S. Department of Justice. (2019). 2019 National Drug Threat Assessment.
  4. University of Arizona. MethOide. Origin and history.
  5. PBS Frontline. (1998). Transforming opium poppies.
  6. Indiana Prevention Resource Center. Heroin.
  7. Phillips, K. A., Hirsch, G. A., Epstein, D. H., and Preston, K. L. (2012). Cardiac complications of unwitting co-injection of quinine/quinidine with heroin in an intravenous drug user. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 27(12), 1722-1725.
  8. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Research on the use and misuse of fentanyl and other opioids.
  9. World Health Organization. (2017). Opiates.
  10. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2017). Market Analysis of Plant-Based Drugs. World Drug Report 2017.
  11. Finklea, K. (2016). Heroin Trafficking in the United States. Congressional Research Service.
  12. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021). What is heroin and how is it used?
  13. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021). What is the scope of heroin abuse in the United States?

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