What is heroin and how can you spot addiction?

Heroin is one of, if not the most, addictive drugs ever to exist on Earth. It has destroyed countless lives and tormented just as many souls as it will continue to do so for many years to come. Despite the negative connotations attached to the drug, many people are still drawn to its effects. This leads us to the question: Why is the drug so appealing to many?

Heroin on a spoon with syringe

A brief insight into heroin and its history

Heroin, a potent and illicit opioid, has a complex and dark history. It originated in the late 19th century when chemists synthesised it from morphine, initially marketed as a non-addictive substitute. However, heroin’s addictive properties soon became evident.

In 1895, Heinrich Dreser, an employee of the German pharmaceutical company Bayer, successfully synthesised heroin. Subsequently, Bayer initiated the commercialisation of this new drug in 1898. During the early 1900s, heroin garnered attention as a potential remedy for the growing issue of morphine addiction. In response, the philanthropic St. James Society launched an initiative to distribute complimentary samples of heroin to individuals dealing with morphine dependency. But by the mid-20th century, its dangers became apparent, leading to strict regulations worldwide. In the UK, heroin is a Class A drug, with possession landing up to 7 years in prison and/or an unlimited fine. Supply and production will result in up to life in prison with the possibility of an unlimited fine.

Today, heroin remains a global public health concern, with efforts focused on harm reduction, treatment and prevention.

Heroin and the UK- the reality

Heroin use in the UK has been a significant public health concern. While the number of heroin users has declined over the years, it remains a problem in certain areas and among specific demographics. In 2020, Dame Carol Black presented a compelling body of evidence after months of independent research, revealing some critical findings:

  • Most heroin destined for the UK market is thought to originate from Afghanistan.
  • 488kg of heroin was seized in the UK during 2018/19
  • It’s estimated that there are around 261,000 heroin users in England alone.
  • Heroin deaths have more than doubled since 2012 and are now at their highest level (2020).
  • 95% of crime costs are estimated to be related to crack and heroin use.

While the UK has worked tirelessly since 2020 to improve some of these shocking statistics, the wounds caused by heroin are still fresh and visible across the nation. Taken from a heroin treatment leaflet from Cleveland Police, this worrying stat highlights the extent of the UK’s heroin issues.

Quote from Danny Ahmed
(Image source: Cleveland Police)

So, with all the death, destruction and addiction very much apparent, what leads people to heroin addiction? Why don’t these types of stats scare potential users?

The allure of heroin

Understanding heroin and what it does to the body is the first step in addressing its devastating impact on individuals and society. Here, we break the sections down into digestible chunks for clarity.

The pleasurable effects on the body

The pleasurable effects of heroin are primarily due to its interaction with the brain and the body’s natural opioid receptors. Below, we take a look at exactly how it works on the body and mind.

Opioid receptors description

Stage 1: Activation of opioid receptors

  • Heroin binds to opioid receptors, particularly mu-opioid receptors in the brain.
  • This binding triggers a series of chemical events.
  • It leads to the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and endorphins.

Stage 2: Dopamine release

  • Heroin activation of mu-opioid receptors causes a surge in dopamine release.
  • Dopamine is associated with pleasure and reward.
  • This leads to intense feelings of euphoria and pleasure.

Effect 1: Pain relief

  • Heroin has powerful analgesic (pain-relieving) properties.
  • They act on opioid receptors in the spinal cord and brain.
  • Reduces the perception of pain, contributing to heroin’s pleasurable effects.

Effect 2: Relaxation and sedation

  • Heroin causes profound relaxation and sedation.
  • It acts as a depressant on the central nervous system.
  • This results in a feeling of calmness and tranquillity.

Opioid receptors

Heroin’s numbing capabilities

When heroin enters the body, it goes straight to the brain and spinal cord, blocking pain signals and providing almost instantaneous relief from excruciating pain. For individuals grappling with chronic pain conditions like severe injuries or cancer-related discomfort, the allure of such relief can become overpowering, especially when conventional pain medications may prove insufficient, making heroin appear as the ultimate escape.

“I had chronic toothache quite recently… The dentist had said come back in a week. I was in so much pain I couldn’t sleep. It was literally the worst toothache I’d ever had. I thought, ‘Okay, crack for the anaesthetic properties, heroin for the complete painkilling properties’. And it worked, worked really well,” – Timothy, aged 27 (Source: The everyday lives of recovering heroin users)

Life can be incredibly tough, and for some people, the emotional turmoil they’re experiencing is too much to bear. Heroin doesn’t discriminate; it can numb psychological pain as effectively as physical pain. It induces a feeling of euphoria and emotional numbness, which can be incredibly tempting for those losing battles with issues like depression, anxiety or trauma. It’s effectively a temporary escape from emotional suffering.

“People that use drugs and drink, part of the main reason why they do that is to numb their emotions. It’s to escape from the real feelings. That’s why they do it. I think if you ask anybody and if they’re truthful, that’s why. It’s escapism, to blur out the reality of what they feel. And sometimes it works for a while but then it all comes back, so then they try to take more stuff of whatever shape or form of chemical to escape,” – Carl, aged 47 (Source: The everyday lives of recovering heroin users)

A temporary solution

But that’s exactly what heroin provides: A temporary relief. The problems before taking the drug will still be there after the effects wear off. The temporary relief offered by heroin comes at a steep price.

Sadly, many users have commented on the fact that whilst trying to numb their issues, they ended up numbing themselves entirely:

“I felt really numb for, you know, a few years… I didn’t really feel anything,” – Chrissie, aged 24

“It [heroin] made me feel numb… All your emotional upset, you know, it makes that go away, just kind of numb,” – Frances, aged 31

“You are kind of sedated and not capable of feeling any great excitement about anything,” – Charlie, aged 31

Source for all three quotes: The everyday lives of recovering heroin users

But the emotional toll is just the beginning. Those who can reflect on their past experiences are the fortunate ones. In England and Wales, a staggering 1,213 lives were lost to heroin and morphine-related deaths in 2021 alone.

It’s crucial to stress that the use of heroin is not a viable or effective solution to any problem. Heroin use carries severe risks, including addiction, overdose, legal consequences, health problems and damage to personal relationships.

Heroin addiction explained by addicts

“Heroin addiction is like driving a car with the steering going out. You eventually resign yourself to the inevitability of what’s going to happen.” – David Bowie

“It doesn’t matter if the drowning person has strong moral fibre. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a good or a bad person, once you become addicted to drugs. What happens next is inevitable. It’s a natural process that happens in everyone’s brain once the drugs take over. So don’t ever fool yourself into thinking that only weak or bad people get addicted.” – Oliver Markus

A text message summarising a former heroin users addiction
(A text message from a former heroin user who tries his best to sum up heroin addiction – Source: ATTN)

Spotting the signs of addiction

Heroin addiction is challenging to hide due to its profound physical and behavioural impacts. The telltale signs make it challenging to maintain secrecy, ultimately exposing the addiction’s devastating grip. Here are some of the most common traits:

  • Are you noticing physical changes? Some may exhibit sudden weight loss, track marks from needle use and poor hygiene due to neglect.
  • Have there been behavioural shifts? Heroin addiction often leads to withdrawal from loved ones, isolation, and declining social responsibilities.
  • Noticeable mood swings? Frequent mood swings, irritability and anxiety can be evident as the drug’s effects wear off.
  • Have you recognised any sudden financial struggles? A person may experience financial difficulties due to prioritising drug purchases over essential needs.
  • Are there any physical symptoms? Heroin addicts may suffer from nausea, constipation and respiratory problems.
  • Is there a craving and tolerance? An increasing need for the drug to achieve the desired effect is a clear sign of addiction.

If you’ve noticed a loved one, or even yourself, show any of the above signs, it could indicate heroin addiction.

What are the next steps?

If you or a loved one is facing a struggle with heroin, please know that you’re not alone. Taking that first step towards recovery and seeking heroin rehab is a brave choice. With our support and evidence-based treatments, you can overcome these challenges and build a life filled with sobriety and fulfilment. Don’t let heroin continue to have control over your life. Reach out for help today and begin your journey to recovery.