Where Does Heroin Come From?
Heroin in the modern age is solely used as an illicit narcotic substance, but this wasn’t always the case. The powerful opioid has a long and interesting history dating back thousands of years. Understanding the origin and complicated past of heroin as a substance can help to contextualize the drug’s impact on modern society.
Heroin Addiction: The History of Heroin
While heroin in its modern form was not developed until the late 19th century, the compounds from which heroin is derived, opium and morphine, date back more than 5,000 years. In the region that is now known as the Middle East, Mesopotamians and Sumerians started cultivating the opium poppy around 3400 BC. Opium was extracted from these poppy flowers and used for legitimate medical purposes as a sedative and analgesic.
In 1805, French pharmacist Friedrich Sertürner found a way to isolate one of opium’s active ingredients: morphine. This drug was used widely to treat pain and as a treatment for opium addiction before its own addictive properties were known. We saw widespread use of opium in the United States in the mid 1800s, during the civil war, as it was used to manage pain from the wounds of war.
Around 1974, English chemist Charles Romney Alder Wright experimented with morphine by mixing it with different acids. His experiments led to the development of a compound known as diacetylmorphine, also known as diamorphine or heroin. This new compound was very similar in structure to morphine but found to be two to three times more potent.
Where Does the Drug Heroin Grow?
As mentioned above, heroin is ultimately derived from the opium poppy. Also known as Papaver somniferum, these poppies are grown from seeds until they reach maturity and the flower petals shed, leaving only a small, egg-shaped seed pod. These pods are what is desired and harvested to extract and process into opium, morphine, and eventually heroin.
According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, opium poppy flowers flourish best when grown in arid, warm climates. Too much moisture during the growing process can affect the chemical dilution of the sap, leading to a less potent end product.
The flower is grown wherever is possible due to the lucrative nature of poppy cultivation, but the majority of large-scale production occurs throughout much of Central Asia as well as in the drier regions of the Middle East. We also see an influx of opium poppies grown in Central America and Colombia.
Extracting Morphine From Seed Pods
Once the opium pods are harvested they are split with a special knife to allow for the sap to ooze out. The gum is then scraped out of the pod and the remaining husk is dried. The seeds are then removed to be planted in the next harvest.
The sap that is extracted is then pressed into a transportable brick form and sold to a black market facility that processes the raw product into heroin. As logic would suggest, most of these processing facilities are not far from the poppy fields, as the volume of the raw sap makes it difficult to smuggle across great distances.
At the processing facility, the raw opium sap is then processed into morphine, the base drug for heroin. To isolate morphine from the other compounds present in the opium sap, the gummy substance is boiled with calcium oxide (or lime). This isolates the morphine in a white band that floats to the top, while the other inert substances present in the raw sap sink to the bottom. The morphine is then skimmed from the top and the rest is disposed of.
The most complete method of separating morphine requires that the mixture sit overnight, but often the morphine is skimmed immediately, leading to a less pure final product.
From Morphine to Heroin
The raw morphine still has a fair amount of processing that it needs to go through before it can be turned into heroin. The next step in morphine processing involves boiling the raw morphine with ammonia, which is then filtered. From there it is boiled again until it is reduced to a brown, clay-like paste. This paste is then dried into bricks known as morphine base.
A similar process is used in a much more sterile environment to produce morphine and other opioid painkillers that are legal for medical use. Legally-produced morphine is carefully monitored for purity and safety and is tracked by the governments who use the resulting medications. Heroin production does not have a set of standards, so illicit heroin can be much less pure and produced in non sterile environments.
The morphine base is then used to create heroin using multiple dangerous chemicals. It requires a number of steps that include mixing, boiling, and separating to further purify the morphine base into heroin. The dangerous chemicals used in the process include:
- Acetic anhydride
- Sodium carbonate
- Hydrochloric acid
Many of these chemicals, when mixed together, can be extremely dangerous. For example, when ether and hydrochloric acid are mixed, it can cause an explosive reaction. As a result, this process is known to be extremely risky. The chemicals are also very dangerous to humans when ingested, resulting in many “home-cooked” batches of heroin having potentially deadly results.
The final result of this process of mixing the morphine base with acetic anhydride and further refining the mix creates a fine white powder that we know as heroin.
The Dangers of “Cutting” Heroin
When the opium poppy is refined all the way to pure powdered heroin the volume is made much lower. This leads to a product that is much easier to smuggle and distribute. More often than not, the people who are distributing the heroin will “cut” the product with inert substances in order to increase the volume of powder and thus, increase the value of their product.
Some of the inert substances that have been found in “cut” heroin include:
- Powdered milk
- Baby formula
- Corn Starch
While most of these substances are inert on their own, that doesn’t mean that it is safe to inject them into your veins.
Along with using inert substances to stretch the volume of the product, many distributors of illicit heroin have taken to adding substances that increase the potency of the product, the most concerning being fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a completely synthetic opioid compound that was first synthesized in 1960 by the Belgian chemist Paul Janssen of Janssen Pharmaceuticals. From when it was created, it was marketed for the treatment of moderate to severe levels of pain. It is one of only a few painkillers that are approved for the long-term treatment of pain and is primarily prescribed to people with chronic pain and a tolerance to other opioids.
Fentanyl is incredibly potent and a stronger opioid than either heroin or morphine. In fact, the drug is believed to be 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine. Because of its potency, over time, it has been shifted from an effective way to treat high levels of chronic pain to a commonly misused intoxicant street drug.
When added to powdered heroin, fentanyl can increase the potency of the drug to levels that can cause overdose even in heroin users with a high tolerance to opioids.
Treatment for Heroin Addiction at Serenity Lane Starts with Detox
Serenity Lane is proud to be one of the top quality heroin drug addiction treatment services in the northwestern United States. We currently provide a cutting edge, medically-supported withdrawal program, also known as detox, at our inpatient care facility in Coburg, Oregon.
We’re proud to offer a full continuum of treatment services for people suffering from heroin addiction. Detox is the first step in your journey towards living a drug-free life.
Our team of medical professionals uses a standardized protocol that is designed to be the most effective way to receive long-term recovery from dependence on heroin. They are prepared and qualified to handle all aspects of detox, including withdrawal symptoms and mental health issues that may be seen.
It is important to remember that even if they aren’t life-threatening symptoms, the withdrawal process is known to be painful, scary, and can make a person feel like relapsing.
In order to be sure safety is the top priority of medical detox, we embrace the benefits of having qualified, compassionate professionals that can handle the withdrawal process with ease. The discomfort and pain that are associated with heroin withdrawal can make it crucial that those going through detox get a medical intervention that combines both their emotional and medical needs. That is why a medical detox program is so important.
The end result of a successful medical detox is that the individual is no longer at high risk for complications related to their substance use. The feeling of cravings may still be there and that is why medical detox is usually the first step in the continuum of care provided to individuals seeking care.
Serenity Lane offers individualized, effective, and innovative solutions for your clients, neighbors, colleagues, friends, acquaintances, and family members struggling with opioid dependency, and any other addiction. Our residential treatment center in Coburg, Oregon can help you or a loved one today.
Don’t wait another day to get the help you or a loved one needs. Call to speak to a recovery specialist now: (541) 262-0802.