More than 4 million people in the United States alone have tried some form of heroin. An estimated 23 percent of all those who try the drug become addicted. This does not count the millions more who are addicted to other opiate drugs, such as prescription painkillers. Unfortunately, heroin and morphine overdoses make up more than half of overdose-related deaths. Heroin on its own is dangerous, but the trend of cutting the drug with other substances to increase the high continues to rise, flooding the streets with what is now known as “killer heroin.”
Killer heroin is actually a hybrid of two drugs, heroin and fentanyl. Both drugs are opiates but heroin is derived from natural morphine, which is refined from the opium of certain poppies. Fentanyl is unique in that it’s a synthetic opiate. The drug is typically used in medicine as a powerful painkiller or anesthetic, and is 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It’s strength makes it more commonly used for those with severe chronic pain and end-stage cancer patients.
How it Works
Both heroin and fentanyl work by interacting with opioid receptors in the brain. Whether injected, smoked or inhaled, the drugs eventually make their way into the bloodstream. The bloodstream quickly transports the drug to the brain where it binds to molecules on opioid receptors attached to brain neurons. Opioid receptors are located in areas of the brain that control pain and the reward centers, along with controlling other primary functions like breathing and blood pressure. Once attached, heroin and fentanyl mimic the natural effects of endorphins released by the body. Endorphins are responsible for making the body feel good, euphoric and pain free, the same feelings commonly associated with getting “high” on the killer heroin drug mix.
Since opiate drugs allow a user to mimic the effects of endorphins any time they want, the brain continues to seek out this effect, sometimes even after the first use. However, just as an addiction to an opiate forms, the brain also grows more tolerant to the drugs. As tolerance increases, users must take more of the drug to continue to get the same high. Eventually tolerance changes how the brain functions resulting in a physical addiction to the substance. Once addicted, the user must continue using or else face potentially severe withdrawal symptoms, further reinforcing the behavior.
Heroin on its own is dangerous in high enough quantities. However, with killer heroin combining the heroin with fentanyl, the risks increase substantially. The draw for this deadly mix is that it creates a much greater high due to the strength of the fentanyl. Unfortunately, even when cut in a small amount to the heroin, the effects are deadly. As mentioned before, the opioid receptors that heroin and fentanyl impact not only impart pain relief and euphoria, they also affect respiration. As the drugs enter the brain, respiration is decreased reducing oxygen to the body. The higher the strength of drug, the more the respiratory system is depressed. With a high enough dose, a person will stop breathing. Fentanyl-laced heroin quickly pushes a dose high enough in strength for this deadly effect to occur.
Typically killer heroin is marketed as being stronger, but a user may not always know their drug is cut with fentanyl. Common trademarks include bags marked as “Theraflu”, “Income Tax” or “Bud Light.” However, even if a user knows that a drug is laced with fentanyl, there’s no way to know by how much. In some cases authorities have seized bags laced with as much as 50 percent fentanyl. Because fentanyl can be absorbed through the skin, even handling the mix can expose a person to the drug.
The problems associated with killer heroin only continue to increase as governments crack down on illegal prescription drug use. With opiates often being the prescription of choice, heroin makes an easy and often times cheaper substitute for an addict. If you or a loved one are suffering from heroin or other opiate addictions, seek out help from your doctor or a local addiction professional.