How Is Heroin Made?
Heroin, a highly addictive opioid drug derived from the poppy plant, is produced in specific regions around the world (mostly Southeast and Southwest Asia, Mexico, and South America) using various chemical manufacturing processes. You can never truly know the purity of what you’re taking when you use heroin, as it is often cut with cheaper—and sometimes dangerous—substances to increase profits.
Where Is It Produced?
Heroin is made from morphine, an opiate substance derived from the seed pod of opium poppy plants.1 It mainly comes from Southwest Asia (mainly Afghanistan), Southeast Asia (predominantly Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand), Mexico, and South America (mainly Colombia). In the U.S., Mexico is the largest source of heroin, with South America being the second most common source.2
From 2016-2017, the total global area used to produce opium increased by 37%, which is largely due to increased production in Afghanistan, the world’s largest producer of opium. Afghanistan now accounts for more than three-quarters of the area used for opium cultivation, which is a record percentage. Afghanistan had an 87% increase in opium production from 2016-2017 to a record high of 9,000 tons, which amounted to 86% of the estimated total global opium production in 2017.3
What Is the Process?
Heroin is produced slightly differently in different regions. However, most of the world’s heroin is produced using the Southwest Asian method of processing, which includes several steps.4, 5
- The first step in the Southwest Asian process is collecting raw opium from poppy pods. The raw opium is then mixed with a calcium solution and hot water in large barrels. This mixture is rapidly stirred and left to settle for several hours.
- After a while, the clear liquid on top of the barrel, which contains morphine, is siphoned out into a different container. After adding a binding chemical, this mixture is put back into the original barrel and heated, which allows morphine to settle to the bottom.
- The remaining substances in the barrel are then filtered out, and the leftover residue dries in the sun, creating a brown morphine base.
- This base is mixed with a different chemical solution and heated until it turns black. Next, it is rapidly cooled with water and filtered to remove impurities.
- A different container is used to mix sodium bicarbonate and water. This mixture is combined with the morphine base, which then creates the base for heroin.
- The heroin base is combined with different chemical solutions (such as charcoal and water), stirred, filtered, and dried.
- A final chemical is added, and the mixture is filtered and dried, resulting in powdered white heroin.
The Colombian method is a bit different due to the high amounts of rain in the region. Instead of drying the opium overnight on the pod, the liquid is immediately collected to be processed, which prevents the sap from washing away in the rain. The liquid is mixed with hot water and then processed following similar steps to the Southwest Asian method.4
What Is It Cut With?
Drug dealers may cut heroin with other substances to extend batches and make more money. Some of these substances can change the effects of the drug and could be harmful to users. Some of the substances used to cut heroin include: 6, 7, 8
- Caffeine, which can cause heroin to vaporize at a lower temperature. Some heroin users view this as a benefit if they smoke or inhale the drug.
- Chloroquine, which does not change heroin’s effects or the way people use it. It is one of the most commonly used substances to cut heroin likely due to its low cost, availability, and color.
- Phenolphthalein, which has been used as a laxative for more than 100 years but was removed from the market due to its potential cancer-causing effects. It is also often used to cut heroin, though the reasons for this are not clear.
- Paracetamol (also known as acetaminophen), a cheap and easy-to-obtain over-the-counter painkiller. It has a bitter taste that can easily camouflage inferior-quality heroin.
- Mannitol, a sugar alcohol also used as a laxative.
- Quinine, a bitter-tasting substance that mimics heroin’s taste and can enhance the high but can also result in blindness and overdose, especially if injected.
- Dextromethorphan, a key ingredient in over-the-counter cough syrup. It can cause hallucinations, euphoria, and, at high doses, psychosis.
- Fentanyl, one of the most dangerous substances heroin is often cut with. It is a synthetic opioid that is 80-100 times stronger than morphine. Originally developed as a painkiller for cancer patients, fentanyl is added to heroin to increase its potency. In some instances, people may think they’re buying heroin but they are actually purchasing fentanyl, which can more easily lead to overdose and death. In addition, fentanyl can cause seizures, slowed respiration, decreased blood pressure, nausea, and fainting.
If you or someone you know is addicted to heroin, know that help is available. You don’t have to struggle with an addiction on your own. It’s never too late to seek help. Professional addiction treatment can help you or your loved one start the road to sobriety and prevent further damage to your mental and physical health and overall well-being.
. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). What is heroin and how is it used?
. U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration. (2017). 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment.
[3.] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2018). World Drug Report 2018: Analysis of Drug Markets: Opiates, cocaine, cannabis, synthetic drugs.
. Drug Enforcement Administration Visitor’s Center and Museum. Cannabis, Coca, & Poppy: Nature’s Addictive Plants.
. PBS Wide Angle. (2002). Bitter Harvest: From Poppy to Heroin: Step 2: Harvesting Opium.
. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2009). World Drug Report 2009 Series: Afghanistan identifies cutting agents for heroin.
. Di Justo, P. (2011). What’s Inside: Street Heroin. Wired.
. Drug Enforcement Administration. Fentanyl.
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