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What Is Heroin?

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Updated March 13, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: What Is Heroin?
Answer: Heroin is processed from morphine which is extracted from the seed pods of some varieties of poppy plants. It is an illegal and highly addictive drug. It is usually sold as a white or brownish powder and is sometimes mixed with other powder - sugar, starch, powdered milk or quinine - by drug dealers.

In the United States today, there are two types of heroin sold: pure heroin and "black tar" heroin.

Pure heroin, which comes from South American and Southeast Asia, is a white powder with a bitter taste. Most of the heroin sold in the eastern United States is this form of heroin.

Black tar heroin is produced in Mexico and is sold mainly in the western states, west of the Mississippi River. It is typically sticky like roofing tar or hard like coal. It gets its dark color from the way it is processed which leaves behind impurities.

Black tar heroin is usually dissolved and diluted then injected by the user. Pure heroin, on the other hand, can be snorted or smoked, which can be more desirable by new users who are not ready to begin injection drug use.

Because heroin is many times cut with other substances - including poisons like strychnine - users never really know just how pure the heroin they are buying is, and therefore, run the risk of overdose and death.

Back to: Heroin FAQ

Sources:

National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Heroin." Research Report Series Updated January 2014

The Partnership at DrugFree.org. "Heroin." Drug Guide. Accessed March 2014.

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