Heroin use in the U.S. has been steadily increasing over the course of the last decade. Despite stringent federal, state, and local laws in place to curb its trafficking, this illicit drug manages to find its way into the black market, and from there, into the lives of millions. While once upon a time, the drug was primarily used as medication, now heroin is used to self-medicate. This leaves many chasing the “heroin feeling.”
Why is it so easy to obtain? Is the heroin poppy flower widely cultivated in the United States? What plant does heroin come from? How is heroin made, step by step? Read on to find the answers.
Poppy: The Heroin Plant
What is heroin made of? It all starts with heroin poppy plants. The drug is made from morphine, which is a naturally available substance extracted from the seed pod of certain species of the opium poppy plant. When people talk about heroin plants, these are what they are referring to.
Morphine is also used in certain opioid-based painkillers, still legitimately prescribed by medical professionals, but that is not where most morphine is put to use. Instead, the majority of the morphine extracted from the poppy plant is used to make heroin. The following delves into the drug-making process, from creating morphine to synthesizing heroin.
Step 1: Making Morphine From Opium
The traditional method: start with the plant
The heroin chemical formula is C21H23NO5. But without a chemistry degree, this doesn’t mean much. How is it made using the traditional method?
Heroin comes from morphine, so the producer must make this first. And to create morphine, the producer needs first to make opium. This involves harvesting the “heroin flower,” or opium poppies. Opium production is nothing new, with the substance having been in use since ancient times. The milky fluid that seeps from cuts in the unripe poppy seed pod is scraped off and air-dried to produce opium. Harvesting is pretty simple; the seed pod is first sliced with a multi-bladed tool. This lets the opium “gum” ooze out. The semi-dried gum is harvested with a curved spatula and then dried in open wooden boxes. The dried opium resin is placed in bags or rolled into balls or bricks for sale. Poppy seeds and heroin are not the same thing, despite the common misconception, but these seeds are integral to production and the first step in realizing the chemical structure of heroin.
At the laboratory
Opium on its own is a powerful and addictive substance, but once it is made into morphine, it becomes more addictive, and more dangerous. To produce morphine, things get more scientific than simply cutting plants and harvesting their “gum.”
At a laboratory, the opium balls or bricks are crushed and dissolved in large drums containing a mixture of hot water and lime. Lime is added continuously to the solution until the pH level reaches 10-12. This solution is then covered and allowed to sit overnight.
This overnight resting period allows the organic matter to sink to the bottom as sediment, while a white layer of crude morphine floats to the top. The liquid is then skimmed off and strained using cloth or burlap sacks. Sometimes it takes several rounds of filtering to completely remove all of the organic matter and insoluble oils from the solution.
The crude morphine extracted using this process is then mixed with ammonium chloride in a barrel and stirred vigorously. The mixture is left to sit for a day. The next morning, the solution is filtered through a cloth soaked in warm water. This leaves behind a brownish paste on the cloth. This is morphine base. There is about 50 percent morphine in morphine base, and it can be abused as a drug on its own, usually smoked in a pipe. However, in the case, it is just another element in the chemical formula for heroin.
To prepare the morphine base for making the drug, it is pressed into bricks and air-dried in the sun. Once dry, it has at this point the consistency of a lump of modeling clay. It is now ready to be converted into raw heroin via a chemical process.
Step 2: Making Heroin From Morphine
Essential ingredients to make heroin
What is heroin made from? As with any drug, different producers will have slightly different recipes for their product. However, there are seven essential ingredients that are required for heroin production. They are:
- Morphine base
- Acetic anhydride
- Baking soda
- Ethyl alcohol
- Activated charcoal.
Making the heroin formula without causing a deadly reaction or creating a fatal product requires extreme care and precise measurements due to the nature of the ingredients in heroin. As such, homemade heroin should never be attempted. Those who produce the drug should only do so with extensive experience and training and in a laboratory setting for pharmaceutical purposes.
Wondering how to cook heroin? For those in a laboratory setting, production begins when morphine base and acetic anhydride are mixed in equal proportions and heated for several hours at 185 degrees Fahrenheit (85 degrees Celsius) in a glass or enamel-lined container. This produces diacetylmorphine, a chemical that is odorless on its own but emits a faint acetic odor after it has been exposed to air for a prolonged period. It also turns pink when the air hits it. This substance contains impurities and has to be processed further.
Creating raw heroin
Next, water and chloroform are added to diacetylmorphine. The impurities precipitate out, and the solution is filtered. Then baking soda is added to the solution. As the acid and the base react, carbon dioxide forms and fizzes out of the solution. Baking soda is added until carbon dioxide no longer bubbles out and the pH balance of the solution is stable at 10. At this time, a crude form of raw heroin, brown in color, deposits at the bottom.
The solution is filtered through a cloth to separate the drug, which forms in solid chunks. It still contains impurities and has to be purified in multiple stages before consumption can be considered reasonably safe even under supervision. This product is called raw heroin or heroin base.
The base is dissolved in diluted hydrochloric acid until the pH level is 7-8. Activated charcoal is then added to the solution, which is then allowed to sit for some time before being filtered first through a cloth and then through a paper filter.
Heroin hydrochloride: 75-90 percent pure
Diluted ammonia solution is added to the filtered solution. When the pH balance reaches 12, the base precipitates out. It is then filtered and readied for the final step of the purification process, in which it is dissolved in a solution of hydrochloric acid and acetone. As the final step of the opium-poppy-to-heroin transformation, the resulting solution is filtered and allowed to sit in a metal container for some time. At this point, the liquid starts to evaporate and leaves behind a white, fluffy, powder-like substance, called heroin hydrochloride.
According to the United Nations, 10 tons of raw opium yield about a ton of heroin.
Heroin hydrochloride created in the laboratory is about 75-90 percent pure. In street lingo, this is No. 4 that can be snorted, smoked, or injected. Those worried about how to purify heroin are often looking to achieve this quality.
Below are lists of the equipment and chemicals used in heroin production:
Table 1. Equipment used in the heroin production.
Table 2. Chemicals used to make white heroin hydrochloride from 70 kilograms of raw opium.
Making Heroin on the Streets
How do they make heroin for street consumption? The process of making heroin from the seed pods of “heroin flowers” has been perfected through the years. The result is that much purer versions of the drug are available now. Heroin with a high purity level can be smoked or snorted. Many users prefer this pure variety because it does away with the need to inject the substance. In addition to the health risks associated with using injections, the stigma surrounding injection drugs is also still palpable.
However, how heroin is made on the streets is a bit different; dealers often add white and powder-like substances like baking soda, milk powder, caffeine, and quinine to “cut” or “bulk up” the product and increase their profits. This reduces the purity of the drug, sometimes to as low as 40 percent, and also means users cannot really know what is in heroin. In fact, fentanyl-laced heroin is a driving factor behind the increases in overdoses.
Dealers benefit in yet another way from selling altered forms of the drug. Because of its low heroin content, long-term users and addicts need more of the impure variety to experience the highs they had experienced earlier. So they buy more, keeping the system going. And when considering how much is a gram of heroin going for on the streets, it is clear that the dealers are making a large profit while causing the detrimental physical side effects of heroin users.
Making Black Tar Heroin
Cooking heroin is difficult and expensive, which has led drug producers to seek cheaper ways to manufacture it. The powered version is considered the safer form of the drug, but it is also the most expensive. This is why something called black tar heroin has become popular as a street drug.
What is heroin made out of when it is called black tar? The base of the drug is still opium, but the process of getting from opium to heroin is different. How do the process and product of black tar differ from that of the original version of the drug?
- Producers skip the step of extracting morphine and instead create heroin directly from raw opium.
- Acetic anhydride is not used, as it is needed for isolating morphine; this is a major part of what makes black tar easier and cheaper to produce. This chemical is highly regulated, making it hard to access, and very expensive.
- Because the morphine isolation step is skipped, the appearance of black tar is very different from that of the original version, which is white and powdery. Black tar is hard or sticky in texture and dark in color, earning it the nickname heroin rock.
- Some producers sell this as the final product, often in balloons, or they can choose to undergo further processes to get the black tar to look like powdered heroin, allowing them to sell a lesser product for more money.
Because black tar heroin is made directly from raw opium, users tend to assume it is the purer version. In truth, it is less pure than the powdered version of the drug, often cut with lactose and other ingredients. This makes the high it delivers unreliable and the potential for death even greater.
Making Heroin at Home
It is not uncommon for those who are addicted to heroin, or even just curious about it, to wonder if it is possible to create the substance at home. Ultimately, it is possible, but it is not advised. There are several reasons for this.
First of all, and perhaps most obviously, at-home heroin production is illegal. If caught producing it, there will be an arrest, trial, and likely time spent in prison. However, it is also a drug that is extremely difficult to produce, requiring the skills of a chemist to do it safely and correctly. The heroin ingredients required are also difficult to come by, making it more of a hassle to gain access to them than the drug itself. Finally, special equipment is needed, and its sale tends to be regulated in order to prevent people from creating drugs at home and in makeshift labs.
Countries that Produce Heroin
Heroin Is Deadly in Any Form
So, even though opium poppies grow only in a few regions of the world, heroin in all shapes, colors, and consistencies are sold on the streets all over the planet. And the trade continues to expand. Manufacturers come up with new ways to make heroin cheaply and in bulk, while smugglers and dealers invent methods to keep the supply channels open and flowing without alerting law enforcement authorities.
And while they do, rehab addiction centers are fighting to keep up with the demand for treatment. Luckily, there are many ready to rise to the occasion. There are thousands of rehab centers across the country offering innovative treatments for drug abuse. With a little researching, any user can find the center that is the best for them. From behavioral therapies to the use of heroin withdrawal drugs, the help addicts need is out there.
If you or a loved one are suffering from heroin addiction, the best course of action is to seek treatment. Speak with our addiction specialists at (888)-459-5511.