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Types of Heroin

Two syringes next to a pile of white powder heroin and a table spoon  

Heroin is an opioid drug that gives people intense highs and mind-altering effects. It is extremely addictive. Many people who start taking heroin do so after becoming dependent on legal opioid painkillers. Most people who abuse heroin are adults, but teen addiction does happen. Teenage heroin use statistics show that about 1,000 U.S. teens had a heroin use disorder in 2016, although use by people under 18 has been decreasing.

The main ingredient in heroin is diacetylmorphine, which comes from poppy plants. Poppy plants are grown in many countries in Central and South America and Asia, and their seeds undergo a refining process to produce heroin. There are a few different types of heroin. Each type comes from certain countries and has a different appearance. Heroin may look like a sticky black, powdery white or powdery brown substance. Its look changes based on how it was produced and what other materials it is cut with.

For example, heroin is usually laced with other drugs like opioids, or cut with cheaper fillers like lactose, baby powder, coffee creamer or laxatives. A person can’t tell exactly where heroin came from, how concentrated it is, what other substances were added or what other toxins and chemicals were left over from the refining process just by looking at heroin.

Black Tar Heroin

One type of heroin that usually originates in Mexico is black tar heroin. This type is often found in the United States in areas to the west of the Mississippi River, although it is becoming more common in the Midwest and the East Coast. It may also be called Chiva or Mexican tar.

What does black tar heroin look like? It is black, dark red or dark brown in color and may be either gooey and sticky or hard as a rock. It usually has an intense vinegar smell. This type of heroin is so dark because the poppy seeds are not fully processed. Black tar heroin often contains several other unprocessed forms of opiate as well as impurities from the refining process. It also may be cut with other dark-colored substances like dirt.

People often grind up Mexican black tar heroin into a fine powder, dissolve it in water, and then inject it. This can sometimes lead to skin infections and damage to veins. People may also grind it up and then snort it, which often leads to damage to the skin and cartilage of the nose. Other delivery methods may include inhaling or smoking.

White Powder Heroin

Heroin can also be a white powder. In the United States, white powder heroin is more common east of the Mississippi River. This type of heroin used to come from Southern Asia but now is more commonly from Colombia or other parts of South America or Mexico. The newer, Colombian type is supposedly purer and less expensive, but it is more likely to lead to overdose.

White powder heroin is more refined and pure than black tar. It may be completely white, but more often is off-white, light pink or light brown. The difference in color is caused by the other substances it’s laced with, like sugar, caffeine or baby powder. Shinier white powder heroin is typically purer. When people cut it with other compounds, it tends to have a duller finish and be off-color. It has a mild vinegar smell and bitter taste. This type of heroin is most often snorted, or dissolved in water and then injected.

China white heroin may look similar to white powder heroin but often refers to something different. Originally, a substance sold under this name was a pure type of heroin that was produced in Asia. Now, it usually refers to fentanyl or heroin mixed with fentanyl. Fentanyl is another opioid drug that is even more potent. It is 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin and a small amount can make a person overdose. Many people who overdose on heroin have knowingly or unknowingly used heroin that was mixed with fentanyl.

Brown Powder Heroin

Brown heroin is more processed than black tar, but not as processed as white powder heroin. It often comes from Mexico or Colombia. Brown powder heroin is also more common in the Western part of the United States but is becoming more widely used in other areas of the country. It might be referred to as Mexican brown or brown tar heroin.

What does brown heroin look like? It is a light to dark brown powder. Sometimes, this substance is made similarly to black tar but is more heavily refined. Other times, it is simply black tar that has been cut with lighter-colored substances, such as other white powdery drugs. This type of heroin is often snorted or smoked. As a result, it is often more popular with teenagers because these delivery methods might seem easier and less intimidating than injecting.

Light brown heroin may also refer to a substance that originates in Southwest Asia, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. It doesn’t dissolve in water very well but holds up under heat, so it is often smoked rather than injected. This type of heroin is much more common in Europe.

Other Types of Heroin

There are several other different types of heroin that go by different names, which are usually just white, brown or black heroin mixed with other drugs. For example, a speedball is heroin mixed with cocaine or another stimulant. Heroin slows down different processes in the body, while cocaine speeds it up. Some people think that combining the two helps reduce the negative side effects of each. However, mixing these can often make the side effects worse and can increase the chances of a fatal overdose.

What is cheese heroin? This is a mixture of black tar heroin and cold medicine. It usually looks like a light brown powder. This substance became popular in Texas around 2005-2007 and made the news because it resulted in several deaths. Some people who started using it as teenagers in Texas around this time are still addicted to it.

Gunpowder heroin is a stronger version of black tar that usually comes from Mexico and is more common on the West Coast. “Scramble” is a drug that is popular in Baltimore. It is a capsule that contains heroin along with other substances like opioids or benzodiazepines. Purple heroin refers to a mixture of heroin and other opioid medications like fentanyl and OxyContin. It is more common in Canada and the Northern United States.

Signs of Heroin Use Among Teens

Parents who are worried about heroin use in their teens should watch out for needles or other drug paraphernalia. Heroin use also produces strong side effects. Physical signs of heroin use in young adults might include:

  • Flushed skin
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Itching
  • Slow and fuzzy thinking
  • Falling briefly unconscious

Over time, people who use heroin regularly might develop insomnia, infections and mental health disorders. Someone who has been using impure heroin may also have other side effects from the other substances. For example, heroin is sometimes laced with strychnine, a poison. People who ingest this may have muscle aches and spasms.

Someone who is dependent on heroin will also go through withdrawal when they don’t have access to the drug. Withdrawal symptoms may look like:

  • Extreme pain
  • Insomnia
  • Restlessness
  • Vomiting
  • Muscle twitches and spasms

Parents who are worried about heroin use among teens should first have an open, judgment-free conversation with their child and offer to help them get treatment. For teens who are defensive or in denial about having an addiction, a professional interventionist may help. Teens struggling with heroin use should go through detox under the supervision of medical professionals who can help prevent and treat harmful withdrawal symptoms.

If you are worried about your teen and heroin, call Next Generation Village. Our programs are designed to help teenagers battle addiction and find sobriety.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.


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