According to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), heroin use in the U.S. has been steadily increasing since the last decade. Although there are stringent 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.
You wonder why heroin is so easy to obtain. Is the heroin plant widely cultivated in the United States? How is heroin made? Read on to find the answers.
Poppy: The Heroin Plant
The United States Drug Enforcement Administration reports in its Drugs of Abuse publication that the heroin plant 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.
Morphine is also used in certain opioid-based painkillers. But most of the morphine extracted from the heroin plant goes into the making of heroin.
Step 1: How to Make Morphine from Opium
The primary substances used to make heroin are acetic anhydride, baking soda, acetone, ethyl alcohol, ether, chloroform, and activated charcoal. The process of creating heroin requires exact measurements and precise formulations.
At the laboratory, the opium balls or bricks are crushed and dissolved in large drums of hot water and lime. Lime is added continuously till 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 and a white layer of crude morphine floats on top. The liquid is then strained using cloth or burlap sacks. Sometimes it takes several rounds of filtering to completely remove all organic matter and insoluble oils from the solution.
The crude morphine thus extracted is 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, and it can be smoked in a pipe. There is about 50 percent morphine in morphine base.
The morphine base is pressed into bricks and air-dried in the sun. It has the consistency of a lump of modeling clay. It is now ready to be converted into heroin via a chemical process.
Step 2: How to Make Heroin from Morphine?
The primary chemicals used to make heroin from morphine are acetic anhydride, baking soda, acetone, ethyl alcohol, ether, chloroform, and activated charcoal. This is a precise process that involves exact measurements.
Morphine 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. It is generally 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.
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 heroin, brown in color, deposits at the bottom.
The solution is filtered through a cloth to separate the heroin, which forms in solid chunks. The heroin 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.
Dilute ammonia solution is added to the filtered solution. When the pH balance reaches 12, the heroin base precipitates out. It is filtered and readied for the final step of the purification process where it is dissolved in a solution of hydrochloric acid and acetone. The 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. It is heroin hydrochloride.
According to some estimates, 10 tons of raw opium yield about a ton of heroin.
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 the lists of the equipment and chemicals used in heroin production:
How is Heroin Made on the Streets?
The process of making heroin from the poppy seed pod 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 that does away with the need to inject the substance. Besides the health risks associated with using injections, the stigma surrounding injection drugs is also palpable.
However, on the streets, dealers often add white and powder-like substances like baking soda, milk powder, caffeine, and quinine to bulk up the heroin and increase their profits. This reduces the purity of the heroin sometimes to as low as 40 percent.
Dealers benefit in 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 high they had earlier known. So they buy more.
How to Make Black Tar Heroin
Black tar heroin is a low-quality form of heroin that appears as a black, sticky substance. Black tar heroin purity is only 25-30%, as it is very cheap to produce and the volume of impurities depends on how it is processed.
According to the NCBI, most of the heroin that is changing hands around the world is in a white or brown powdered form. The other form of heroin, 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. It is cheap to produce and 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 is heroin made, you realize that it is a time-consuming, laborious, and expensive process. It is believed that drug manufacturers in Mexico found a way to economize on the process of producing heroin 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 of heroin, 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 bulks. Because of its low price, there is no 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 still remains potent and triggers all the adverse side effects of the purer form of heroin. 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.
Despite the fact that the heroin plant grows only in some regions of the world, heroin in all shapes, colors, and consistencies are sold on the streets all over the world. While manufacturers are coming up with new ways to make heroin cheaply and in bulk, smugglers and dealers are inventing methods to keep the supply channels open and flowing without alerting law enforcement authorities.