A-Z

Drugs and Alcohol (young people)

Heroin

What is heroin?
Heroin is made from the pain reliever morphine that comes from the opium poppy plant. Heroin (aka smack, skag) is one of the most addictive drugs on the street. In its pure form, heroin is a white powder but ‘street’ heroin is brown owing to the other substances it is cut with. Caffeine, lactose, benzodiazepines and paracetamol are among the most common of these.
 
Heroin is usually either smoked or dissolved in water and injected. If pure, heroin can be snorted. Daniel’s first experience was of drinking opium in Nepal. Later, at university he used heroin for about three months and his preferred method was to ‘chase the dragon’. This means that he heated powdered heroin on a piece of foil and inhaled the fumes.
 

After a few months of heroin use, Daniel became very ill and was taken to hospital overnight.

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Do you want to tell me more about that experience with heroin because you. For how long did you do heroin?

 
I first took, I first drank opium in Nepal in 2000. Is that right? Yeah. And then I started chasing it off the foil [pause] in 2004. So we’re talking about a very short space of time, three months or something like that.
 
Ok so it’s three months that you did that.
 
Yeah.
 
And would you mind sort of telling me what happened when you were taken to hospital and spent two days there and?
 
I well I woke up and the room was full of my own vomit and excrement. ...There was a guy, a guy from Pakistan I remember who took me down to the front desk. The ambulance showed up. I went with them to hospital. They gave me some, I mean I presume it was Diazepam or something like that. That kind of, that really sort of numbed me. I lay in bed. I slept, slept. Didn’t want to eat, threw up a bit, threw up some more, slept, drank lots of water, slept, vomited. They took me outside for some coffee and cigarettes. There was a guy from I think it was Nightline the university run this helpline. He was there and he talked to me for a bit. And then there was a counsellor just after that. They gave me some food that night, soup I think. I woke up the following morning just sweating and it was like having very bad flu for a day. I took some more Diazepam the following day [pause] and then maybe codeine as well. ...The following morning they let me out.
What are the effects of heroin?
Heroin slows down the body and is a strong painkiller. It can make people feel relaxed and happy. These effects can last for several hours. As with all drugs, its effect in each individual person can be hard to predict. The amount and the purity of the substance you are taking and your own emotional state at the time will influence your experience.
 
What are the negative effects of heroin?
Heroin was one street drug that nearly everyone we talked to had steered clear of because it was considered highly addictive. Jim lived in a rural area and, when he was 16 years old, he and his friends used to smoke a lot of weed until the entire group was introduced to heroin by a friend’s boyfriend. At first, Jim turned it down but then he tried it and liked it. For about six months they used to take it at weekends and then stopped. When he started taking it again he very quickly became addicted.
 

Jim describes how he became addicted to heroin.

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Age at interview: 23
Sex: Male
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Towards the end of the summer I got introduced to heroin then. That was through one of my, one of my friend’s from school her boyfriend was using it. He was already an addict for quite some years and he was using it and he introduced our circle of friends to it. I turned it down at first but within a month or so I tried it and liked it and I kept taking it basically. We were just having it at weekends then for about 6 months or so. And then we stopped taking it for a while then started taking it again and I very quickly became addicted to it.
 
And this was when you were 16?
 
I was about 16, 17 years old then yeah.
 
Still living in the rural area?
 
Yeah.
 
When you said addicted what happened to you at that point?
 
Not a great deal at first. Things went on as they were at first. It kind of came on slowly. I was taking more and more heroin. Before I knew where I was I was addicted to it and obviously then I needed that to function because of the withdrawal symptoms and what have you. So because of that you take more and it’s a vicious circle if you like. 
 

Alex has a relative who has a heroin addiction and he said he would never consider using it because he is aware of how dangerous and addictive heroin is.

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Age at interview: 20
Sex: Male
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So have you tried heroin?
 
No. I wouldn’t.
 
You wouldn’t?
 
No.
 
Why not?
 
I know how dangerous it is really.
 
In which way dangerous?
 
I now sort of... but being so highly addictive sort of risk of death, overdosing. I’ve actually got a sort of second cousin who went to the Priory who was addicted to heroin and then she had a pretty awful time. And just generally, you know, it’s just something I wouldn’t even consider.
 
So you saw her when she was?
 
No, no I didn’t see. I was quite young at the time but she’s, she’s well now but, you know from what I heard, it was a pretty awful time for her. 
Regular use of heroin leads to an increased tolerance to the drug. At first, this means needing to take increasingly large amounts to feel the same sense of euphoria and wellbeing. After continued use, users become physically dependent on the drug and need to use increasingly large quantities just to feel "normal." If users stop taking heroin at this point they can go into ‘withdrawal’.
 
Withdrawal is the body's reaction to stopping taking a drug that the person has become physically dependent on. The effects can be stopped either by taking more of the drug, or by going 'cold turkey', meaning that they stop taking the drug altogether. Jim decided to go ‘cold turkey’ but not having the drug made him feel ill, with flu-like symptoms. He lasted four weeks feeling like this but in the end it was too much for him and used heroin again. The second time he succeeded in his attempt to stop using heroin with the help of a substitute called methadone.
 

Jim describes how he felt when he decided to go on a ‘cold turkey’ withdrawal.

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Age at interview: 23
Sex: Male
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What happened you went cold turkey? How did you feel?
 
Right ok. The best way I can describe it to you is if I had had a hit now, ok, I’d be alright for the rest of today. I’d feel normal for the rest of the day. I’d then wake up tomorrow morning and you’d have very severe flu-like symptoms. You’d be cold, shivering, hot sweats. You’d have no energy whatsoever. Your legs would be aching, your back’s aching, you’re sneezing, you’re coughing, you’re vomiting, diarrhoea, you’re eyes are watering, you’re yawning. There’s very, very bad symptoms basically. You can’t sleep. You can’t eat. You’re constantly running to the toilets. You just can’t do anything at all until you get another fix. And life gets worse and worse and worse progressively over about three or four weeks and then slowly you get better after that.
 
And you lasted four weeks. You tried?
 
Yeah, yeah.
 
...to do it without any assistance or treatment for four weeks?
 
Yeah.
 
But what happened next?
 
It just became too much for me really. I think a lot of it is to do with the frame of mind because obviously going by what I’ve just said, four weeks you’re nearly, you’re nearly through it but even so because of what you’ve just been through it’s still too much mentally speaking, it’s still too much. So you’re still compelled almost to go out and score.
 
And I just couldn’t take it anymore. So I went out and I bought some heroin and come back and took it. And that was there I was back to square one.
 
What were the reasons you wanted to stop taking drugs?
 
I’d lost my family, my friends, my home. I was living in a tent for quite some time. 
At the time of interview Jim had been following a methadone treatment programme for 18 months to help get him off heroin, with success.
 
Injecting heroin can damage veins and arteries. If needles are shared, users are at risk of a range of infections including hepatitis B and C and HIV.
 

During the 3 months when he was injecting heroin Jim did not share needles and kept his equipment...

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Age at interview: 23
Sex: Male
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Did you ever feel that you were putting yourself at risk sometimes when you were doing drugs or buying drugs or things like that?
 
For the most part I wasn’t injecting heroin. I was only smoking it. There was only really the space of about 3 months where I was injecting properly all the time. So obviously smoking is a hell of a lot safer than injecting is. So the risk’s a lot less. So personal danger no not really I wasn’t that bothered.
But you
 
I mean obviously there are dangers there but I wasn’t that bothered about it then.
 
So you were injecting that means have you had a test, an HIV test?
 
Yes, yeah. Everything is negative.
 
Because I mean it must have been a worry after you stopped doing?
 
Yeah I wasn’t worried at the time by any means but afterwards yes I did think, ‘Hold on have I got something or not’. Then again though you see when I was injecting I was safe. I never shared anything. I always used all my own stuff and it was always sterile. So I did it in the safest possible way. 
Heroin becomes very expensive for those who are dependent on it but, as Jim pointed out, there are other personal costs too. Steph told us that her mother’s heroin addiction had made her aware of what a costly drug it is, in many different ways.
 

Steph counts the cost of her mother’s heroin addiction on her finances, criminal record, ruined...

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Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
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How old were you?
 
So. I think I was probably about seven when I noticed it like day-to-day basis. Saw my mum actually I don’t know what the word is but prostituting herself a couple of occasions for this addiction. And it’s very powerful and as a teenager now there’s a place where I used to go called the Jesus Army and that place can, a few people there can be heroin, I mean drug users or alcohol use and things like that. And you still see it day-to-day now like people using the stuff and how it can deteriorate their lives no matter what they’ve got as an addiction.
 
And it’s obviously very sad that they can, you know, like waste their life away because my mum’s now 37 and she has wasted a good 17, 18 years on this addiction. Spent so much money and robbed her family, took loans out in her family’s names, lost us children. She’s got six in total and we’ve all been put in care and things, you know what I mean.
 
So it’s, I mean it’s not a very, obviously no way near a nice addiction. It’s very powerful and overtaking and it pretty much is one fix and then you’re addicted. And everybody else sort of gets left behind and their addiction comes first which is obviously very hard as her daughter or as any family member would see because you’re sort of second best to that addiction.  


Last reviewed July 2018.
Last updated: January 2015.
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