What is heroin, anyway?

I challenge anyone to think of heroin and not have an association to bad stuff.  Really, heroin evokes images of criminals and addicts and most people who’ve had no real contact with heroin addiction probably think heroin is something evil.  And while I do think heroin’s effects are significantly adverse, I think that nothing, in and of itself, is evil.  It’s use makes it so…

So, what is heroin and why do people use it?  For starters, today’s heroin is a street drug that derives from poppy seeds, just like opium and morphine.  As a matter of fact, heroin is a direct descendant of morphine and codeine because, well, codeine is an isolated component of morphine called methylmorphine and when acetic anhydride was mixed with methylmorphine the result was a highly addictive version of morphine called diacetylmorphine, or as we know it: heroin.  I don’t provide this information as a chemistry lesson, rather, it’s intended to show that heroin is a close cousin of a very important medicine.

Morphine s used to treat pain. It is a nervous system depressant – meaning it slows the heart rate and the respiratory system; as well as, desensitizes pain receptacles and clouds thinking.  Heroin does the exact same thing, but has a shorter half-life, meaning it’s effects wear off faster and the potential for physical dependency is high due to its effect and to its short half-life.  Part of the problem with street heroin is that it’s not pure – it’s often mixed or “cut” with all kinds of stuff which make the risk of toxic impacts from using it very high.  Heroin is usually smoked, injected, or snorted and when people overdose, it’s usually because the dose is different than what they normally use and/or the place they use it is different that their normal location.  Since heroin isn’t regulated, there’s always a chance that the dosage could change.  Due to the respiratory system depressing effect of heroin, overdosing usually means the person has stopped breathing.

Heroin use is scary, but understanding it’s effects is very useful for treatment.  It’s critical to treat the physical dependency using legal and regulated drugs like methadone or suboxone.  Switching a heroin addict to either of those meds is safer, as they are regulated and administered by medical professionals.  There’s a lot more top treating heroin addiction, but I wanted to present a quick overview as a way to show that there are objective mechanisms behind heroin addiction that can make it a lot less scary once they’re understood….


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