In The Know Zone

What is heroin?

Heroin is derived from morphine, which in turn is derived from seed of the opium poppy. The flower's botanical name is papaver somniferum. The opium poppy flourishes in dry, warm climates. Most of the world’s opium poppies are grown in a long, narrow path across southern Asia from Turkey through Pakistan and Laos. However, more and more heroin is being produced in Latin America, primarily Colombia and Mexico.

Pure heroin is a white powder with a bitter taste, but on the street it may vary in color from white to dark brown because of impurities left from the manufacturing process or the presence of additives.

Another form of heroin known as "black tar" is available in the western United States. Black tar heroin, which is produced only in Mexico, may be sticky like roofing tar or hard like coal, and its color may vary from dark brown to black. The color and consistency of black tar heroin result from the crude processing methods used to manufacture heroin in Mexico. Black tar heroin is often sold on the street in its tar-like state at purities ranging from 20 to 80 percent. It is most frequently dissolved, diluted, and injected.

How Heroin is Processed

Opium poppies are brightly-colored flowers blooming on green, stiff stems. Hidden in the petals is an egg-shaped seedpod filled with a milky sap. This sap is crude opium. As the sap oozes out through slits cut in the seed, it turns darker and thicker, forming a brownish-black gum. The gum is formed into bricks, cakes, or balls and wrapped in plastic or leaves. The opium farmer sells the bricks into the black market, where they proceeds to a refinery.

The opium is refined into morphine by mixing it with lime in boiling water. Organic wastes sink to the bottom, and a white band of morphine forms on the top. The morphine is skimmed off, filtered, and boiled down into a brown paste. It is then poured into molds and dried in the sun into a base the consistency of modeling clay. Morphine base is smokeable in a pipe or ready for further processing into heroin.

Heroin is produced by boiling morphine base with acetic anhydride, and subjecting it to various purification steps. The fourth and final step of purification involves ether and hydrochloric acid, and so is very dangerous. Violent explosions occur from time to time. The final product of this four-step purification process is a fluffy, white powder known as number four heroin.

Price and Purity of Heroin

The less heroin is available to dealers, the less pure the street drug will be.

During 1995, the nationwide average purity for retail heroin from all sources was 39.7%, compared to the average of 7% of 1985. In addition, the 1995 average was also considerably higher than the 26.6% recorded in 1991. The rise in average purity was caused by the increase in availability of high-purity South American and Southeast Asian heroin.

Increased availability has led dealers to try to expand their market share into users who are not willing to inject a drug. Higher purity heroin can be inhaled or smoked and still provide the desired effects.

Nationally in 1995, Southeast Asian heroin ranged in price from $70,000 to $260,000 per kilogram. Southwest Asian heroin ranged from $70,000 to $260,000 per kilogram. Prices for Mexican heroin were the lowest of any type, selling for as low as $50,000. South American heroin sold for between $80,000 and $185,000. The wide range in kilogram prices reflected variables such as buyer-seller relationships, quantities purchased, purchase frequencies, and transportation costs.

By the time heroin is sold on the street, it is in small bags that go for $5 to $100 each, and its value has been multiplied by more than ten times since its entered the United States.

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