Photographs of the Various Types of Heroin

Highly addictive heroin has made a comeback in the United States

Heroin is an illegal and highly addictive opioid drug that's derived from morphine, a substance that's naturally found in certain varieties of the poppy plant. Poppies grow best in warm, dry climates like South America, Mexico, and southern Asia. Typically, heroin is sold as a white or brown powder or as a sticky black tar and it's often mixed, or "cut," with other substances such as flour, sugar, powdered milk, painkillers, starch, or quinine to give dealers more product to sell and thus more profit.


After years of declining use in the United States, heroin started making a comeback in 2007. It's available in larger quantities and the demand is higher than ever both because of the increased availability and because more people who have developed a dependence on prescription opioids turn to heroin. This has resulted in more deaths from heroin overdose too; in 2014, the number of overdose deaths more than tripled compared to the number in 2010, and the number of heroin overdose deaths from 2002 to 2016 has increased by 533 percent.

According to research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), since 2002, the number of heroin users has jumped from 404,000 to 948,000 in 2016, an increase of 135 percent. However, the number of heroin users only increased a minute amount from 2015 to 2016, showing stabilization in terms of new users.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials believe the increase in heroin overdose deaths arises from these factors:

  • Today's heroin is cheaper and often purer, leading to accidental overdose.
  • An increased number of young, inexperienced people are trying heroin.
  • Toxic substances, such as fentanyl, a narcotic pain medication that's even stronger than heroin, are being used to cut heroin in certain markets.
  • Former heroin users who use again don't have the tolerance they once did.

People with prescription opioid dependence and abuse are switching to heroin. Almost 80 percent of people using heroin in the United States said they misused prescription painkillers first.

Black Tar Heroin

Black tar heroin

 U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

Black tar heroin is dark brown or black and has a tar-like, sticky feel due to the crude way it's processed, which is different than the powder form of the drug. The color can vary depending upon what agents were added to it during processing to cut the purity of the finished product. It can be melted down and injected into the veins or smoked.

Black tar heroin is usually produced in Mexico and generally contains a very low percentage of pure heroin. It is, however, faster and easier to produce and therefore cheaper than other forms of heroin.

White Heroin

Powdered heroin
Powdered heroin. DEA

White heroin (diamorphine hydrochloride) is the purest form of the drug, but it's usually cut with other substances, significantly reducing its purity. It can be difficult to identify because it doesn't always appear to be white, but can actually appear pink, brown, beige, or off-white because of the different chemicals that may have been used to process it. It's usually injected or snorted because it requires a much higher temperature to burn and smoke.

Brown Heroin

Brown heroin

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

Brown heroin isn't as pure or potent as white heroin because it's not as refined. It's produced in the first stage of purification of the drug. It is, therefore, easier to produce and cheaper than white heroin. Brown heroin is usually smoked because it doesn't dissolve well.

Asian Heroin

Asian heroin

Drug Enforcement Administration

Southeast Asian heroin is usually white, powdered, and highly water soluble. Heroin from southwest Asia is typically a brown coarse powder with poor water solubility. Again, the color of the heroin changes depending on what materials it's cut with before it's sold on the streets.

A Word From Verywell

Using heroin is illegal, extremely addictive, and far more deadly than other drugs. There is no cookie-cutter heroin user. Individuals of all ages and lifestyles have used heroin, though adults between the ages of 18 and 25 have had the highest increase in use. 

If you happen to encounter this highly addictive drug, call your physician or a law-enforcement official to handle the drug and to find support. If you or someone you love struggles with heroin addiction, call the Alcohol & Drug Addiction Resource Center at (800) 390-4056.

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