According to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), heroin use in the U.S. has been steadily increasing during the last decade. Despite stringent Federal, State, and local laws in place to curb heroin trafficking, this illicit drug manages to find its way into the black market and from there, into the lives of millions.
Why is it so easy to obtain? Is the heroin poppy flower widely cultivated in the United States? How is heroin made, step by step? Read on to find the answers.
Heroin is made from poppy seeds, and it is one of the most addictive drugs on the planet. The original “heroin recipe” was derived from morphine, a naturally occurring opiate extracted from the seed pods of certain varieties of heroin poppy flower plants. The opium poppy has been cultivated for more than five thousand years for a variety of medicinal uses. Thus heroin was first synthesized from morphine in 1874, in a failed attempt to create a pain reliever as strong as morphine but without the addictive properties.
From 1898 through to 1910, the German pharmaceutical company Bayer was making heroin and marketing it under the trademark name Heroin as a cough suppressant and as a non-addictive morphine substitute until it was discovered that it rapidly metabolizes into morphine and becomes as addictive as the original morphine. One year after beginning sales, Bayer was exporting it to 23 countries, either in standalone form or integrated into over-the-counter remedies such as cough syrups.
After its addictive qualities were discovered, Bayer discontinued their heroin process, but it quickly became available on the street as the result of illegal manufacturers who figured out how to make heroin and began distributing it. As an illegal narcotic, it is usually injected into a vein, but it can also be smoked, snorted, or inhaled.
Heroin was the scourge of America’s cities in the 1960s and 70s, and the most demonized of all illicit drugs. But then it seemed to go out of fashion. By the 1990s, it was less widely used than crack cocaine. In Europe, its use has continued to decline, with the number of addicts falling by about one-third in the past decade. In America, by contrast, it is resurgent. Last year nearly 700,000 Americans took the drug, twice as many as a decade ago. It is now more popular than crack, by some measures.
What explains the upsurge in making heroin, and its role in the current “opioid crisis?”
The primary cause is the growing popularity of another drug – the prescription painkiller. Opioid painkillers such as OxyContin and Fentanyl became more widely prescribed in the 1990s and 2000s. They are effective painkillers, but they are commonly abused; about 11 million Americans use them illegally every year.
More than two-thirds of addicts have previously abused prescription painkillers. This trend, when discovered, led to a crackdown on prescriptions. For example, doctors can now check databases to make sure patients have not already been prescribed opioid drugs somewhere else. So they are harder to obtain. But that means that many prescription-pill addicts have turned to heroin, which sates the same craving for a fraction of the cost of the prescription painkillers.
The transition from opioids to heroin is often caused by the fact that once their prescription runs out, getting painkillers on the black market can cost up to $30 per pill, while heroin costs only $5 a bag. Plus, heroin has a better “high.”
Where does America’s supply of heroin come from?
According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy at www.whitehouse.gov, virtually ALL of the heroin consumed in the US comes from three source regions –Southeast Asia, Southwest Asia, or Latin and South America.
While the actual involvement of U.S. forces in the drug trade is not proven, there is simply no question that the rise in production in Afghanistan would have been impossible prior to the U.S.-led invasion of that country. After the Taliban had all but eradicated opium production, it began to thrive again only months after American forces replaced the Taliban-led government in 2001.
Poppy: The Heroin Plant
The United States Drug Enforcement Administration reports in its Drugs of Abuse publication that the poppy plant for heroin is cultivated extensively in Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos; Southwest Asian countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan; and Latin American nations like Mexico and Columbia. And what drug comes from the poppy plant? Heroin. Thus the source of the problem can be traced to these seven countries
Morphine is also used in certain opioid-based painkillers, still legitimately prescribed by the medical profession. But most of the morphine extracted from the poppy plant goes into the making of heroin. The following section explains how this is done, and how heroin is made from poppy seeds.
Step 1: How to Make Morphine from Opium
The traditional method: start with the plant
How do you make heroin using the traditional method? The heroin process starts with making opium – harvesting the “heroin flower,” or opium poppies. The milky fluid that seeps from cuts in the unripe poppy seed pod has, since ancient times, been scraped off and air-dried to produce what is known as opium. 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.
At the laboratory
The opium balls or bricks are crushed and dissolved in large drums 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. The organic matter sinks to the bottom as sediment, while a white layer of crude morphine floats to the top. The liquid is then 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 smoked in a pipe.
The morphine base is pressed into bricks and air-dried in the sun. 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: How to Make Heroin from Morphine?
Essential ingredients to make heroin
The primary chemicals used to make heroin from morphine base are acetic anhydride, baking soda, acetone, ethyl alcohol, ether, chloroform, and activated charcoal. This is a precise process that involves exact measurements. If you were hoping to learn how to create heroin at home, you’re out of luck even if you could find or grow opium poppies, because the process is complicated and easily messed up.
Morphine base and acetic anhydride are mixed in equal proportions and heated for several hours at 85-degree Celsius in a glass or enamel-lined container. This produces diacetylmorphine, a chemical that is odorless but emits a faint acetic odor after it has been exposed to air for a prolonged period. It also turns pink after being exposed to air. 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 till carbon dioxide no longer bubbles out, and the pH balance of the solution is 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 heroin, which forms in solid chunks. It still contains impurities and has to be purified in multiple stages.
The heroin base is dissolved in dilute hydrochloric acid till the pH level is 7-8. Activated charcoal is added to the solution, which is then allowed to sit for some time before being filtered first through a cloth and then through a filter paper.
Heroin hydrochloride: 75-90 percent pure
Dilute ammonia solution is added to the filtered solution. When the pH balance reaches 12, the heroin 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.
Heroin hydrochloride thus obtained in the laboratory is about 75-90 percent pure. In street lingo, this is No. 4 heroin that can be snorted, smoked, or injected.
Below you’ll find lists of the equipment and chemicals used in heroin production:
How is Heroin Made on the Streets?
The process of making heroin from the seed pods of “heroin flowers” has been perfected through the years. The result is that much purer heroin now leaves laboratories than ever before. Heroin with a high purity level can be smoked or snorted. Many heroin 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, on the streets, 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 heroin sometimes to as low as 40 percent.
Dealers benefit in yet another way from selling adulterated heroin. 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.
How to Make Black Tar Heroin
According to the NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information), most of the heroin that is changing hands around the world is in a white or brown powdered form. The other form, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is the black tar heroin, which is usually a black sticky substance.
Black tar heroin is less refined than the powdered form of heroin. It is at most 25-30 percent pure. Making black tar heroin is cheap, but it contains impurities. Depending on how it is processed and the nature and volume of impurities present in it, black tar heroin can be sticky and goopy like roofing tar or rocky and hard like coal.
Now that you know how heroin is made using the traditional morphine-to-heroin process, you realize that it is a time-consuming, laborious, and expensive process. It is believed that drug manufacturers in Mexico, trying to learn how to make homemade heroin, found a way to economize on the process of producing it and ended up making black tar heroin.
Instead of extracting morphine from opium and then processing the morphine to make white powder heroin, black tar manufacturers skip the intermediate step and synthesize heroin directly from raw opium.
Because the manufacturers do not isolate morphine, they also don’t need to use acetic anhydride, which is expensive and heavily regulated by the United Nations. Instead, they use acetic acid or plain vinegar that is cheap and easily available. What is more, they need far less acetic acid than acetic anhydride. To make a kilogram, about $50-worth of acetic anhydride is required, but only $10-worth of vinegar is needed to make black tar heroin.
Making black tar heroin is quicker than producing white powder heroin. So black tar heroin can be produced in large batches and, if the manufacturers know how to turn black tar into powder, can be transported and sold as easily as more pure – but also more expensive – forms. Because of its low price, there is never any shortage of users of black tar heroin.
Because of its consistency, black tar heroin is usually diluted and injected into veins, muscles, or administered subcutaneously. However, it can be smoked or snorted as well. Whatever the method of use, black tar heroin remains potent and triggers all the adverse side effects of the purer form. Furthermore, the adulterant substances present in it can cause other side effects.
According to the NCBI, black tar heroin is usually sold wrapped in plastic sheets and inserted and sealed in tiny balloons, unlike the other type that is sold in plastic zip pouches or glassine folds.
So, despite the fact that 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.