Overview and Origin of Heroin

Heroin is an opioid drug made from the poppy plant. Heroine is the synthesized form of morphine, a natural extract from opium poppy plants. It is also known as black tar, Big H, hell dust, or smack. The heroine can either be smoked, snorted, or injected into the veins.Heroin use can lead to collapsed veins, infections of the heart lining and valves, skin infections. Heroin users are more susceptible to contracting HIV/AIDS, hepatitis Band C, and lung diseases like pneumonia. Globally, more than 15 million people use heroin. Each year deaths related to heroin are more than any other illicit drug. The drug is used exclusively for recreational purposes and a highly addictive illegal drug.

Heroin was first produced in 1898 by the Bayer Pharmaceutical Company in Germany. In the US, the drug was marketed as a pain medication, treatment for tuberculosis, and an alternative to morphine addiction. During the 1850s, opium addiction was a significant problem in the United States. Morphine was introduced as a less potent, non-addictive alternative to curb opium addiction. Morphine developed to be a bigger problem than opium addiction leading to the introduction of heroin as the non-addictive substitute. Unfortunately, heroin became more potent and addictive than morphine and was eventually made a controlled substance in the US in 1924.

Heroin Production

Heroin is made from the gum of poppy plants. The process involves converting the milky, sap-like opium first removed from the pod of the poppy flower into powder from heroin. The extracted opium is refined to make morphine, then further refined into different forms of heroin. The heroin production process is categorized into cultivation, extraction, creation of the morphine base, acetylation, crystallization, and adulteration.

Opium Poppy Cultivation

Heroin is derived from opium, and the sole source of opium is the opium poppy. Today, Papaver somniferum L. is the only species of Papaver that produces opium. The genus, Papaver, means poppy while the species, somniferous, means sleep-inducing. The opium poppy plant is an annual plant-bearing pod only once. Papaver Somniferum is grown from seeds until it flowers and bears a pod. Only the pod portion of the poppy plant can produce opium alkaloids. The entire growth cycle takes about 120 days.

Papaver Somniferum L. is one of the most delicate plants cultivated by man; thus, all prerequisite conditions must be fulfilled to obtain a quality harvest. Papaver Somniferum L. thrives in warm, dry climates with low humidity and only needs a moderate amount of water (Drug Enforcement Administration, 1992). In addition, sandy, loam soil is favorable, while extreme arid and excessive moisture adversely affects the plant reducing the alkaline content. Today, illicit opium poppy plants are generally grown in the Golden Triangle, consisting of Southeast and Southwest Asia such as Turkey, Thailand, Burma, Laos. In addition, the opium poppy plant also grows in the drier regions of the middle east, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mexico and Colombia also grow the opium poppy plant. The primary legal opium-growing areas include India, Turkey, and Australia.



Extraction of Opium Latex

Opium poppies flowers generally bloom after about three months of growth and continue to flower for two to three weeks. The petals last for two to four days and begin to fall away. As the petals fall away, they expose a round seed pod. Inside the pod is opium latex, milky sap, which represents opium in its crude form. Opium latex tapping begins two weeks after the petals fall and is done when the pod remains on the plant. The pod is slit vertically in parallel lines with a special knife, allowing the sap to ooze out of the pod (Wilson,Wagener& Thomas, 2019). The pod is then dried, and seeds harvested for the next season. The sap continues to ooze, changing color to a brownish-black gum.  The opium latex is then allowed to dry on the pod. A special scraper is then used to collect the gum and is thus dried in open wooden boxes. The dried opium latex is then bundled into bricks, balls, or cakes.

Creation of the Morphine Base

The second step is the process of extracting morphine from opium. The opium latex at this stage is ridden with impurities; thus, purification is required. Chemicals used to isolate morphine from opium include; ammonium chloride and calcium hydroxide. The process involves dissolving the opium brick in boiling water to dissolve the alkaloids. Calcium hydroxide (Ca (OH)2) is thus added to precipitate non-morphine alkaloids. Calcium hydroxide converts the water-insoluble morphine into water-soluble calcium salts since the other opium alkaloids do not react with the calcium. Most of the product is wasted, and it goes to the bottom of the barrel. The film of white morphine, which forms at the top, is thus drawn off. The solution is allowed to cool, and the solution is filtered. The filtered white morphine is reheated, and Ammonium chloride (NH4 Cl) is added to the resulting solution to precipitate morphine from the solution(Close,2021). Ammonium chloride is also used to adjust the alkalinity to a Ph of 8 to 9. The morphine base precipitates out of the solution and floats in a white band while the organic waste settles at the bottom of the barrel. The morphine is filtered and boiled again, resulting in a brown paste. The paste is then dried into bricks of crudely refined morphine base, which can be smoked.

Acetylation Process

This entails the conversion of morphine to a heroin base. The synthesize of heroin from morphine base is a two-step process and includes a variety of chemicals. First, equal amounts of Acetic anhydride (CH3CO) 2 O and the morphine base are heated in an enamel pot for two hours (Christiansen, 2021). The solution is heated at a constant temperature of 185 Fahrenheit. Acetic anhydride is risky to use since it is a listed substance due to its corrosive element. The solution is constantly regulated to avoid venting fumes but is agitated to ensure complete dissolving of the morphine base.  The process creates an impure form of heroin known as Diacetylmorphine, consisting of chemically bonded anhydride and morphine.

Water and chloroform are then added to the solution and mixed. The volume of the water used is three times the amount of acetic anhydride. This process is used to remove impurities. The resulting solution is filtered, and sodium carbonate (Na2CO3) is added to the mixture. Sodium carbonate is dissolved in water and added slowly until effervescence stops (Drug Enforcement Administration, 1992). The process solidifies the heroin, which sinks to the bottom. The heroin base is then filtered with activated charcoal, which removed colored impurities. The heroin base is then dried by heating. The process results in a heroin base known as Diamorphine, which is brown.


This entails the purification of the heroine base into refined heroin. The process involves precipitating the heroine base in ammonium hydroxide and filtering the resulting solution to remove impurities.  The heroin base is thus dissolved in diethyl ether (C2H5) 2 0) and hydrochloric acid (HCl) to form heroinhydrochloride (Marciano, Panicker,Liddil, Lindgren,& Sweder, 2018).Heroin hydrochloric is thus filtered again and water evaporated by heating the solution. Both diethyl ether and hydrochloric acid are listed substances since their interaction may lead to explosions. The final product is a white powder known as heroin. The product is referred to as number four in the illicit trade.


Adulteration refers to the process of adding substances to refined heroine after the conversion process is completed. After heroin is manufactured, it is sold to distributors whose sole mission is to make profits in the illicit market. The distributors often cut the heroine with caffeine, paracetamol, fentanyl, and acetaminophen and package them into smaller quantities. Adulteration makes the resulting heroin product dangerous since the additives often lead to overdoses.


Heroin is a highly addictive drug that is synthesized chemically. The production process starts with the cultivation of the Papaver Somniferum L., which historically does well in the Golden Triangle incorporating Southeast Asia, South West Asia, and parts of the middle east. Opium latex is derived from the incised pods of the poppy plant and harvested using special equipment. The direct acetylation of morphine manufactures heroin. Morphine is an alkaloid obtained from the dried opium latex of unripe opium poppy pods. The chemicals used include calcium hydroxide and ammonium chloride, acetic anhydride, sodium carbonate, diethyl ether, and hydrochloric acid.




Christiansen, T. (2021). How Is Heroin Made? | The Recovery Village Drug and Alcohol Rehab. The Recovery Village Drug and Alcohol Rehab. Retrieved 27 April 2021, from https://www.therecoveryvillage.com/heroin-addiction/how-is-heroin-made/.

Close, L. (2021). How Is Heroin Made? | Sunrise House. Sunrise House. Retrieved 27 April 2021, from https://sunrisehouse.com/heroin-addiction-treatment/how-made/.

Drug Enforcement Administration. (1992). Opium poppy cultivation and heroin processing in Southeast Asia. Washington DC: Office of Intelligence.

Marciano, M. A., Panicker, S. X., Liddil, G. D., Lindgren, D., & Sweder, K. S. (2018). Development of a method to extract opium poppy (Papaver somniferum L.) DNA from heroin. Scientific reports, 8(1), 1-15.

Wilson, B., Wagener, D., & Thomas, S. (2019). How Is Heroin Made? Recovery.org. Retrieved 27 April 2021, from https://www.recovery.org/heroin/how-made/.








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