Heroin is an opioid drug made from the poppy plant. Most heroin is produced in Asia and Latin America, especially Afghanistan and Mexico. The majority of the heroin in the U.S. is smuggled in through the U.S.-Mexico border and distributed throughout the country by Mexican cartels. The 3 main types of heroin are white, brown, and black tar. During distribution, it is cut with other substances such as quinine, sugar, starch, baking soda, and other opioids, such as fentanyl.
What Is Heroin?
Heroin, also known as horse, black tar, Big H, hell dust, or smack, is an opioid drug with strong addictive potential.1,2
Users inject, smoke, or snort heroin. Its effects include a rush of euphoria, flushed skin, tired and heavy limbs, itching, nausea, vomiting, and clouded thinking.2
Globally, about 9.2 million people use heroin.10
Where Is It Found?
Heroin is a derivative of morphine, an opiate substance extracted from the opium poppy.2 Poppy 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.5 However, most of the supply of heroin in the United States is produced in Mexico and South America, especially Colombia.12,13
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, opium is produced in around 50 countries. But the main producers are:11
- 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).
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
To continue the process of making heroin, farmers sell the opium to merchants or brokers, who bring the bricks to a refinery. Refinery workers add the bricks to barrels of boiling water and add lime to the mixture. A good deal of the product is waste, and this waste goes to the bottom of the barrel.5
A film of white morphine forms at the top. The workers harvest this morphine, and then reheat it with ammonia. The next stage of heroin production involves another round of filtering and boiling until a brown paste forms. Then, workers pour the morphine paste into molds and leave them to dry in the sun. It is possible to smoke the mixture at this point.5
Making heroin out of this paste involves a few more steps. The workers will:5
- Add acetic anhydride to morphine and boil the mixture for several hours.
- Add water and chloroform and then drain the mixture.
- Add sodium carbonate. The heroin will solidify at this stage.
- Filter the heroin with activated charcoal and then add alcohol to purify it. They then gently heat the mixture to evaporate the alcohol and leave heroin.
- Add either ether or hydrochloric acid to the mixture to purify the heroin. The result is a white, fluffy powder.
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 an increase in use patterns, as many people were previously wary of using the drug via injectable routes out of a fear of catching a disease such as hepatitis or HIV from infected 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:2,6,7
- 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 Other Substances Are in It?
Dealers typically add other substances to heroin in a process called cutting. They do this to increase profit or to increase the effects of heroin.8 Some of the most common products used are:
- 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.8
- Fentanyl, an opioid 80 times more potent than morphine. Combining it with heroin can have deadly results, as it can lead to profound respiratory depression.9
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. The largest Mexican cartel is the Sinaloa Cartel.3
In the last several years, Mexico has emerged as the second-largest producer of heroin in the world after Afghanistan. Much of the heroin transported to the U.S. from Mexico comes from people that carry relatively small amounts of heroin in a truck or SUV. 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
Once the Sinaloa Cartel has smuggled the heroin into the U.S., it uses numerous routes to distribute the drug into most regions. Other smaller Mexican cartels, such as BLO and LFM, bring heroin across the Mexican border and mostly distribute the drug in the Southeast and Southwest. The Tijuana Cartel brings some heroin into the Great Lakes region, the Southwest, and the Pacific regions of the U.S.3
Some other groups, including a few cartels in Colombia, bring South American heroin into Florida and New York. To get drugs into the U.S., the Colombian cartels use small boats as well as passengers on commercial airlines. In addition, the Colombian cartels sell heroin to the Mexican cartels and European markets. However, Colombia’s role in worldwide heroin production has dropped sharply in recent years.3
The Dominican cartels are also a player in heroin trafficking in the U.S. They primarily buy heroin from the Colombian cartels and distribute it into the northeastern and southeastern areas of the U.S.3
Asian heroin is limited in the U.S. Most of it comes through West African drug cartels. The West African organizations distribute heroin in major cities such as Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Houston, Washington D.C., Baltimore, and Detroit. Typically, the West Africans use human couriers, who will swallow the heroin, hide it under clothes, or put it in luggage. The West Africans also mail heroin in packages or use freight shipments.3
- Drug Enforcement Administration. Drug fact sheets: Heroin.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Heroin.
- U.S. Department of Justice. (2011). National drug threat assessment.
- University of Arizona. MethOide. Origin and history.
- PBS Frontline. (1998). Transforming opium poppies.
- Cates, L. (2016). What is heroin? Washington and Lee University.
- Indiana Prevention Resource Center. Heroin.
- 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.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Research on the use and misuse of fentanyl and other opioids.
- World Health Organization. (2017). Opiates.
- United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2017). Market Analysis of Plant-Based Drugs. World Drug Report 2017.
- Giblin, P. Heroin’s hidden journey. USA Today.
- Finklea, K. (2016). Heroin Trafficking in the United States. Congressional Research Service.