Patterns & Lethality of Heroin Abuse

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has taught and written various law courses.

Heroin is a powerfully addictive street drug that can be administered in several different ways. It's known as one of the most lethal drugs. This lesson discusses the patterns of heroin abuse and its potential lethality.

Heroin Abuse and Addiction

Heroin used to be a legal, popularly used medicine. In fact, it was designed to be a safer alternative to morphine, which was the most commonly used pain reliever at the time. Heroin was marketed as a powerfully effective pain reliever without the addictive qualities of morphine and other narcotics. As it turned out, heroin was just as addictive and possibly even more so.

Heroin was only legal for a few decades. It was completely outlawed in 1924 due to widespread heroin addiction. However, continued demand created a black market and a steady number of addicts. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported around 450,000 U.S. heroin addicts in 2012.

Heroin is highly addictive mainly due to its euphoric qualities. Euphoria is a feeling of intense elation and excitement, often referred to as a 'high'. Both morphine and heroin are opioid drugs. Opioids work by blocking pain messages to the user's brain. In doing so, opioids also stimulate pleasure and reward messages in the user's brain. When opioids are taken in high doses, or in a way that causes a concentrated rush of medication to the brain, the overload of messages results in euphoria.

Heroin Use, Tolerance and Withdrawal

Heroin comes in a few different forms and is used in several different ways. It's most commonly sold on the streets as a white or brownish powder. This type of heroin is usually cut, meaning it is mixed with another substance, such as sugar, cornstarch or even another drug.

Heroin is often sold in powder form.

Some heroin is a black or dark brown gummy material. This is known as black tar heroin and is a lesser processed - yet sometimes more potent - version of powdered heroin.

Heroin is sometimes sold as a dark, gummy substance.

Heroin powder is often sniffed or snorted. Both powder and tar forms can be heated to form a liquid and then injected. Both forms are also smoked, often by heating the heroin and inhaling the smoke through a straw or pipe.

Each of the three forms of administration can result in tolerance and addiction. Heroin tolerance occurs when a user needs a higher dose of heroin in order to achieve the desired effect. This type of tolerance leads to heroin dependency, which is simply a reliance on heroin based on the body's adaptation to heroin. When we refer to addiction, we are referring to a dependent user who also has psychological or behavioral difficulties linked to heroin. For example, a heroin addict might miss work in order to buy heroin or be arrested for possessing heroin.

Heroin Withdrawal, Overdose and Lethality

Note that dependent users cannot cut back or stop using heroin without experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms include nausea, vomiting, fever, headaches, cold flashes, restlessness, muscle aches and bone pain. The symptoms can start within a few hours of the dependent person's last use of heroin. Many people find that symptoms last only a week or so, while others experience symptoms for months.

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