What is heroin?
Heroin is a semi-synthetic drug (natural material mixed with chemicals). The natural material comes from the seed pods of the Papaver plant (commonly known as “poppy”). Opium is extracted from the pod in the form of latex juice. By adding certain chemicals, the opium is converted to heroin. It is used in controlled medications and other (mild) legal products, but is better known as a notorious illegal drug.
Poppy pods are relatively easy to obtain on the black market. The poppy plant is a legal agricultural product in many countries, due to it’s industrial and commercial applications. It can even be grown as an ornamental or garden flower. In it’s natural form, the juice of the plant is harmless. As such, efforts to reduce the number of poppy plants have been unsuccessful and drug dealers benefit from this.
Along with cocaine, heroin is a dominant illicit drug. It is a huge industry, one of the largest in terms of sales. In South Africa, there are thousands of heroin addicts and it accounts for hundreds of annual deaths.
Apart from the sense of euphoria that it creates, the drug is easy to inject, smoke or sniff. It works faster than most other drugs. Even when just swallowed, it begets a quick, dramatic reaction or “rush”.
Heroin gives most users a feeling of warmth, relaxation and low anxiety. They feel detached; as though they are in a vacuum – they see and hear what is going on, but do not feel part of it. Emotional and physical pain is also suppressed.
After the initial euphoria, they feel drowsy for hours, mental function slows down, heart rate and breathing diminishes. Faltering pulse and breathing can even lead to coma, brain damage and death.
Withdrawal symptoms begin within hours after the last dose. These include runny nose, sweating, heart palpitations, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, restlessness, chills, goose bumps, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, nausea, diarrhea, cramps, fever and more.
Users develop tolerance to heroin – over time, they must take more of the drug, more often, to achieve the same effect.
The dangers of heroin abuse
Heroin is extremely addictive. Tolerance develops within a few weeks. If consumption is reduced or stopped, it leads to severe withdrawal symptoms and a fierce craving for more heroin.
Even if the addict survives the first severe withdrawals, the protracted (ongoing) withdrawals are more problematic. They last up to six months and consist of fatigue, lethargy, sleep problems, bad moods and cravings. There is real danger of falling back into drug abuse during this long stage. The overpowering cravings can cause addicts to do almost anything to get hold of heroin, including criminal acts.
Heroin does not damage organs directly, but the toxin suppresses bodily functions. It brings with it a number of health and social harms. On the social side it leads to a life on the shadowy side of society, making it difficult to maintain normal social functions. It ruins relationships, finances and other interests. On the physical side there are wounds, abscesses and chronic swelling of arms and legs.
Viral and bacterial infections occur, as well as heart inflammation and a variety of other health issues, such as endocarditis, embolism, botulism, tetanus, flesh-eating bacteria, blood poisoning, hepatitis and HIV.
Street heroin is not pure. Typically, impurities are mixed in during the manufacturing process. The bulking substances are often toxic dilutants which are added to increase volume (and the seller’s profit). In some cases other drugs are added and lead to the user become addicted to those as well.
The risk of overdose is always present, as users do not know the strength (quality) of the dose they have on hand and they do not know how much heroin their bodies can absorb before it collapses. This, coupled with urgency, leads to consumption errors and overdosing. Overdosing can cause death.
Signs of heroin addiction
There is a long list, including:
- Nausea, vomiting, chronic coughing.
- Lack of appetite, weight loss, constipation.
- Runny or bleeding nose, loss of menstruation.
- Sallow appearance, dark circles under eyes, pinpoint pupils.
- Burn marks, sores around the mouth, nose and on fingers.
- Needle marks, scabs, infected sores on arms, legs, between toes.
- Neglect of responsibilities, frantic selling of possessions.
- Fighting with family and others, mental disorders, withdrawal.
- Frequent changes in jobs and/or living arrangements.
- Stealing, prostitution and other criminal acts.
How to deal with heroin addiction
Addicts are not unsavoury by nature. They stray into addiction by way of experimentation, ignorance, peer pressure and misguided ideas that drugs offer a magical escape route to happiness. They do not intend to become addicts and they believe that they will never become one. Once they are trapped, they fear the withdrawal symptoms and loss of the perceived benefit that the drug provides.
They are adept at denying or dismissing concerns. They may even resort to violent arguments. Another ploy is to promise reduction of consumption on their own, without submitting to treatment. This often leaves family, friends or employers feeling frustrated and they simply walk out. None of these are positive outcomes.
However, there are effective, proven ways of dealing with all these problems.
Please phone the number at the top of this page for advice about:
- Intervention techniques at home or at work (and assistance, if necessary).
- Available medication to overcome withdrawal.
- Restorative consultations with family, friends, employers.
- Modern therapy for uplifting the addict’s quality of life.
- Meaningful ways to deal with life after treatment.