What is heroin?

Updated: Dec 31, 2020
  • Author: Rania Habal, MD; Chief Editor: Jeter (Jay) Pritchard Taylor, III, MD  more...
  • Print

Heroin (diacetylmorphine) is a semisynthetic narcotic derived from the opium poppy Papaver somniferum. It was first synthesized in 1874 and was originally marketed as a safer, nonaddictive substitute for morphine. Soon after its introduction, heroin was realized to be clearly as addictive as morphine, prompting the US government to institute measures to control its use. By 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Act prohibited the use of heroin without a prescription. In 1920, the Dangerous Drugs Act prohibited the use of heroin altogether, thus driving it underground.

Afghanistan remains the world's largest cultivator of opium, accounting for approximately 84% of the world's opium poppy cultivation. Myanmar is the second largest, at 7%, and Mexico is the third largest, at 6%. Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, and other Latin American countries are the main suppliers of opium products to North America. [1]

In its pure form, heroin is a white powder with a bitter taste. However, samples are frequently mixed with other substances so dealers can maximize their profits. Because of these impurities and additives, street heroin samples have different purities and may appear in various hues, ranging from white to dark brown. Heroin is occasionally sold as a black, tarry substance, especially when crude processing methods are used to manufacture it. Heroin samples from South America appear to have the highest purity, reaching at times more than 70% purity.

Did this answer your question?
Additional feedback? (Optional)
Thank you for your feedback!