Drugs and Alcohol


What is heroin?
Heroin is made from the pain reliever morphine that comes from the opium poppy plant. Heroin (aka smack, skag) is one of the most addictive drugs on the street. In its pure form, heroin is a white powder but ‘street’ heroin is brown owing to the other substances it is cut with. Caffeine, lactose, benzodiazepines and paracetamol are among the most common of these.
Heroin is usually either smoked or dissolved in water and injected. If pure, heroin can be snorted. Daniel’s first experience was of drinking opium in Nepal. Later, at university he used heroin for about three months and his preferred method was to ‘chase the dragon’. This means that he heated powdered heroin on a piece of foil and inhaled the fumes.
What are the effects of heroin?
Heroin slows down the body and is a strong painkiller. It can make people feel relaxed and happy. These effects can last for several hours. As with all drugs, its effect in each individual person can be hard to predict. The amount and the purity of the substance you are taking and your own emotional state at the time will influence your experience.
What are the negative effects of heroin?
Heroin was one street drug that nearly everyone we talked to had steered clear of because it was considered highly addictive. Jim lived in a rural area and, when he was 16 years old, he and his friends used to smoke a lot of weed until the entire group was introduced to heroin by a friend’s boyfriend. At first, Jim turned it down but then he tried it and liked it. For about six months they used to take it at weekends and then stopped. When he started taking it again he very quickly became addicted.
Regular use of heroin leads to an increased tolerance to the drug. At first, this means needing to take increasingly large amounts to feel the same sense of euphoria and wellbeing. After continued use, users become physically dependent on the drug and need to use increasingly large quantities just to feel "normal." If users stop taking heroin at this point they can go into ‘withdrawal’.
Withdrawal is the body's reaction to stopping taking a drug that the person has become physically dependent on. The effects can be stopped either by taking more of the drug, or by going 'cold turkey', meaning that they stop taking the drug altogether. Jim decided to go ‘cold turkey’ but not having the drug made him feel ill, with flu-like symptoms. He lasted four weeks feeling like this but in the end it was too much for him and used heroin again. The second time he succeeded in his attempt to stop using heroin with the help of a substitute called methadone.
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At the time of interview Jim had been following a methadone treatment programme for 18 months to help get him off heroin, with success.
Injecting heroin can damage veins and arteries. If needles are shared, users are at risk of a range of infections including hepatitis B and C and HIV.
Heroin becomes very expensive for those who are dependent on it but, as Jim pointed out, there are other personal costs too. Steph told us that her mother’s heroin addiction had made her aware of what a costly drug it is, in many different ways.

Last reviewed July 2018.
Last updated: January 2015.


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