Heroin and opiates: the story
Heroin is a powerful opiate, which is usually smoked or injected. Here's the story of one of the worlds most addictive and destructive drugs.
What is heroin?
Heroin, also known as 'smack', 'skag' or 'junk', is the most potent member of the opiate family, which also includes morphine, opium and synthetic opiates. It's a Class A drug and considered extremely addictive, causing both physical and psychological cravings in users. Found in the form of a white, crystalline substance or in a white or brown powdered, it can be injected or smoked. When injected, the drug works almost immediately, with an initial rush lasting several minutes and effects lingering for several hours.
What is opium - and where does it come from?
Opium is the dried 'milk' of the opium poppy, which can be found growing wild in temperate regions all over the world. Most legal opiates originate in India and Tasmania, and the majority of the black market drugs come from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the 'golden triangle' of Burma, Laos and Thailand. Growth of opium dates back as far as 3400 BC, when the Sumerian people grew what they called Hul Gil, 'the joy plant'. The cultivation of poppies was also practiced by the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Egyptians, who used opium both for recreational purposes, and as a painkiller.
Opiates were also prized in the West for their supposed medical benefits. Laudanum was long considered a medical cure-all, while morphine - discovered by German scientist Friedrich Sertuerner in 1803 - was hailed as the discovery of "God's own medicine" due to its unprecedented purity and strength. Up until the middle of the 19th Century, opiates were legal within the UK, and indeed considered 'fairly' respectable. In 1821, the English intellectual Thomas De Quincy published Confessions Of An English Opium Eater, a frank account of euphoria and, later, addiction, while Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional detective Sherlock Holmes took the drug recreationally in many of his novels.
However, moral panic about opium dens and a growing awareness of the dangers of addiction saw the passing of the Opium Act of 1878. It's currently illegal to supply or possess opiates without a prescription, and an offence to allow premises to be used for producing or supplying the drug. Addicts, however, are permitted to procure opiate substitutes from specially licensed doctors in order to regulate the spread of infection and reduce crime. Use of opiates in the UK remains fairly rare: figures from the British Crime Survey state that less than 1% of young people between the ages of 16 and 24 have used opiates in their lifetime.
By the time heroin hits UK streets, it has generally been cut with other substances, such as caffeine, dramatically reducing its purity.
How is heroin made?
Heroin, also known as diacetylmorphine or diamorphine, is a particularly potent strain of morphine. It was discovered by accident in 1874 by the English chemist Charles Alder Wright whilst attempting to find a non-addictive alternative to morphine. It was later manufactured by the German pharmaceutical company, Bayer, who hoped to use it to treat alcoholism before discovering the extent of its addictive properties.
Most illicit heroin is grown in small-to-medium sized farms in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and approximately two-thirds of it is converted into heroin or morphine before export. While typically found at upwards of 95% purity in their country of origin, by the time heroin hits UK streets, it has generally been cut with other substances, such as caffeine, dramatically reducing its purity. UK drugs charity Drugscope report many drug-related deaths are caused by doses of the drug cut with toxic or contaminated material or agents that clog the blood, oalthugh fatalities can also be caused by an exceptionally pure dose.
How does heroin reach Britain?
Heroin has traditionally found its way into Europe through Turkey and the Balkans, although since the collapse of the USSR, former Soviet bloc countries have become popular new smuggling routes. Some opiates are also smuggled by air from Afghanistan or Pakistan, with The Serious Organised Crime Agency reporting recent high-profile busts of crime rings transporting heroin in boxes of sugar cane, or sewn within the lining of rugs.
How does the international heroin trade work?
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that 90% of the world's heroin supply comes from Afghanistan, where the drug trade is controlled by 'narco-cartels' - criminal groups linked to the Taliban. The growth of opium poppy is banned by the Afghan government, but opium production has risen sharply in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001, as growing the plant is reportedly up to 10 times as profitable as wheat. The UN estimates that the Taliban raise up to $300m a year from the international drugs trade.
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