The Many Faces of Heroin

Opium poppy (Source: Pixabay)

Afghan brown, black tar, Colombian white. All distinct physical and chemical variations of "street" heroin. Different colors, different names, different origins and different levels of purity for one drug.

When covering heroin, news reports almost always tend to focus on seizures of shipments, the dismantling of trafficking networks, and of course, addiction, overdoses, and "epidemics" of use. Very rarely, though, is the drug itself and its many forms explained.

A Short History

Heroin, or diacetylmorphine, is a semi-synthetic opiate made from morphine, which derives from opium, the dried milk of the opium poppy. 

The British chemist C.R. Alder Wright first synthesized heroin in 1874. The substance (four to eight times as potent as morphine) only gained popularity after being re-synthesized some 20 years later by Felix Hoffmann, a chemist working for Bayer Company, who named it “Heroin”, from the German word “heroisch” (or heroic) because of its effect on the user.

See the TalkingDrugs series - The Evolution of Opiates in the UK

In 1898, the drug started to be sold as an over-the-counter cough suppressant, and was highly recommended by doctors who believed it could counter the addictiveness of codeine and morphine. As Heinrich Dreser, head of the Bayer pharmacological laboratory, stated in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in 1900, “It [heroin] possesses many advantages over morphine. It's not hypnotic, and there's no danger of acquiring a habit.”

However, this was an enormous misunderstanding of the drug's potency. Bayer ceased production of heroin in 1913 and attitudes swiftly began to change as government's around the world began to restrict the legal distribution of opiates, moves that were largely set in motion by the signing of the International Opium Convention in 1912.

Heroin's Different Forms

Color, physical state, producing region, heat stability, water solubility, levels of purity and “cuts” determine different types of heroin.

Most street heroin is cut with a wide range of substances such as sugar, flour, caffeine, starch, powdered milk, quinine, and, even if rarely, strychnine (apart from being used as rat poison, in low doses it is a stimulant).

Heroin, depending on its form, can be smoked, injected, or snorted.

Brown Heroin

Brown heroin, or diamorphine base, is the result of the first stage of purification of impure diacetylmorphine. Brown heroin is easier to produce than white heroin and burns at a lower temperature, making it easier to smoke. However, it requires the addition of an acid (either citric or ascorbic) to become soluble in water.

White Heroin

White heroin, or diamorphine hydrochloride, is the most refined heroin on the market. The purification process involves ether and hydrochloric acid, making the procedure extremely dangerous given the flammable nature of the chemicals used. The result is a pure and water-soluble salt form of the drug which is typically used intravenously rather than smoked due to its higher burning temperature.

One of the main problems with identifying white heroin is that it is not always white; it could be pink, beige, brownish, or off-white, depending on the differences in the chemicals used to produce it.

Black Tar Heroin

Black tar heroin is a dark, sticky resinous substance of Mexican origin, resulting from the incomplete acetylation of morphine. It is generally cheaper and faster to produce than white or brown heroin.

The actual percentage of heroin in the black tar is generally very low. Its color, ranging from dark brown to black, and its consistency derive from the crude processing techniques and cutting agents used, the most common being lactose.

Daniel Ciccarone, in a 2009 article published by The International Journal on Drug Policy, sums up the different types of heroin and their origins:

“Southeast Asian heroin is stereotypically white, powdered, highly water soluble and acidic; Southwest Asian heroin is typically a brown coarse powder with poor water solubility (until acidified from its basic form by the addition of an acid) and good heat stability; Colombian heroin is off-white to light brown, powdered and acidic with good water solubility; Mexican heroin is dark brown to black, solid, vaporizable, of lower purity and despite its acidity, requires heat to go into aqueous solution.”

Mapping the Heroin Market

Like most illicit drug markets, the heroin market is far from static; eradication measures, changes in demand, seizures, and even climate conditions are just a few factors that prompt shifts in cultivation, production and trafficking patterns.

According to the 2014 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) World Drug Report, the total area under illicit opium poppy cultivation in 2013 was 296,720 hectares.

Opium poppies are grown primarily in three geographically distinct regions: Southwest Asia, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. In addition to these three major regions, legal opium poppies are cultivated in government-regulated opium farms in India, Turkey and Australia, among others.

The “Golden Crescent," a region encompassing Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran (the latter being a major consumer and transit point rather than a producer), represents over 80 percent of the global opium production, with Afghanistan's annual production potential for heroin hitting over 600 tons in 2014.

For a decade Afghanistan has been the primary source of heroin in Western and Central Europe, mainly traveling via the well-established Balkan route (via Iran and Turkey), though also via East Africa.

In recent years, the number of European heroin users has declined (from 1.6 million to 1.13 million), according to the 2014 UNODC report.

So-called Afghan brown is the main type of heroin available in Canada which, contrary to geographical logic, is not supplied by the much nearer Latin America.

The “Golden Triangle," an area including Myanmar, Northern Thailand and Lao PDR, is the second largest source of opium with an estimated overall area of 63,800 hectares under cultivation in 2014.

According to the 2014 Southeast Asia Opium Survey, poppy cultivation in Myanmar has tripled in the last eight years. This surge has arisen partly as a result of the escalation in number of heroin users in the East Asia region in the past decade -- China has an estimated 1.3 million heroin users, approximately 70 percent of all users in Asia.

Heroin produced in the Golden Triangle, apart from supplying the regional market, is also shipped to Australia. According to the 2013 World Drug Report, though, opium production in Myanmar and Lao PDR would be insufficient to meet the increasing heroin demand of other Southeast Asian countries, namely Malaysia, Thailand, Viet Nam, Indonesia, and Singapore. Thus, supply for the region and Australia is likely supplemented by Afghan-produced heroin.

Opium poppy cultivations in Latin America are mainly found in Mexico which has supplanted Colombia as the region's top producer over the past decade. Additionally, Guatemala eradicated over 2,000 hectares of opium poppies from January to October in 2013, and in Honduras the first ever opium plantation in the country was discovered last year.

Data concerning opium cultivation and heroin production in Mexico and Colombia is rather inconsistent, as highlighted recently by InSight Crime. Yet, some facts are clearer: while the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is still trying to work out where heroin in the US comes from, Mexican opium poppy cultivation has risen markedly in recent years. As noted by the Washington Post, marijuana crops have been replaced by opium poppy crops in Mexico’s Sinaloa state, following the surge of cannabis legalization that has taken in place in the US lately, and the resulting collapse of marijuana wholesale price.