Heroin’s appearance can vary dramatically depending on your geographic location. Most of the world’s supply of heroin comes in a powder form ranging in color from white to off-white to brown to grey. Another form called black tar heroin is a black substance that is sticky or looks like coal.
Heroin tablets and a capsule form known as “scramble” have also been popping up in some parts of the United States.
Most heroin sold east of the Mississippi River is a white to off-white powder that comes from Mexico and South America, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. The majority of heroin in the Western United States, meanwhile, comes in the form of a brown powder or a sticky, black solid trafficked in from Mexico.
The way heroin is produced accounts for the various colors and textures of the drug. Typically, the whiter heroin is, the purer it is. Manufacturing processes, which vary by country, can also affect the smell of heroin.
Substances that drug dealers and manufacturers add to heroin also affect its appearance and texture. Heroin sold on the street is almost always combined with “cutting agents,” or fillers, to stretch the drug dealers’ drug supply and increase profit. These cutting agents may include talc, sugar, baking soda, quinine and other drugs.
When it comes to heroin, appearance matters. The drug’s physical characteristics often determine how people use it — that is, whether they snort, smoke or inject it. Certain types of heroin are more potent than others.
White powder heroin dominates the heroin market along the East Coast and in the Midwest, which are the regions with the heaviest concentration of heroin use.
According to the DEA’s 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment, white powder heroin tends to be “highly pure, inexpensive and increasingly adulterated with fentanyl,” a lethal synthetic opioid that is contributing to a rash of heroin-related overdose deaths.
As the name suggests, white powder heroin is a light, white-colored powder resembling powdered sugar or cocaine.
White powder, which can range in color from white to off-white to beige, used to flow into the United States mainly from Colombia. In recent years, however, Mexican traffickers have begun producing large volumes of white powder heroin.
Because it dissolves well in water, most white powder heroin sold on the streets is easily injectable. People who use this form usually prefer injecting it into a vein.
Black tar heroin is the most common form of heroin sold west of the Mississippi River. It comes from Mexico, the largest heroin supplier to the United States.
Despite its name, black tar heroin is not always black. The drug can also appear brown or reddish. It can be sticky like roofing tar or hard like coal. It can also look like melted licorice.
The drug’s dark color results from the “crude processing methods that leave behind impurities,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Black tar heroin is typically either smoked or injected — but shooting heroin is particularly dangerous.
Every year, several cases of “wound botulism,” a serious bacterial infection that can paralyze or kill a person, develop in individuals who shoot black tar heroin. Injecting black tar heroin can also cause veins to inflame and harden.
Although black tar heroin can cause severe health risks, people who use this form tend to have lower rates of diseases commonly spread by sharing needles. HIV rates are lower among black tar heroin users than in people who inject other drugs.
One reason this form is safer than white powder heroin is because the dark, gummy drug has to be heated to at least 165 degrees to be injectable. That temperature is hot enough to kill the AIDS virus.
Black tar heroin also tends to clog needles, while white powder heroin does not. People who use this form rinse or replace their needles more frequently, which may also cut down on transmission of the virus, according to researchers at the University of California San Francisco.
Mexican cartels are also producing large amounts of brown powder heroin. This form has a higher purity than black tar heroin. It can be smoked or snorted, making it more attractive to people who don’t want to inject the drug.
Sometimes called brown, brown sugar, brown crystal or Mr. Brownstone, brown heroin is often a combination of crushed black tar heroin mixed with other substances. Drug dealers or manufacturers may cut brown heroin with diphenhydramine, lactose, baby laxative, coffee creamer or vitamins.
The drug can appear in various shades of brown, ranging from a lighter tannish brown to darker shades of brown depending on what it’s cut with.
While heroin from Southwest Asia is typically a coarse brown powder, very little heroin in the U.S. originates from that region today.
A newer type heroin nicknamed gunpowder heroin has been appearing regularly on the West Coast in recent years. The substance has been described as a combination of cocaine and heroin or heroin mixed with fentanyl.
A 2016 study in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs describes gunpowder heroin in San Francisco as a sticky powder version of black tar heroin. It is generally believed to be more potent than black tar heroin, according to those who’ve used it.
Gunpowder heroin may look like:
Like black tar heroin, gunpowder heroin requires heating to dissolve quickly, but it appears to dissolve better in water than black tar heroin.
Heroin can also come in pill and capsule form. In Baltimore, the most popular form of heroin is called scramble — a gel cap that contains a mix of white or brown powder heroin and other substances.
According to another 2016 study in the Journal of Pyschoactive Drugs, scramble is believed to be raw heroin that has been diluted with quinine and lactose. Scramble can appear white to concrete grey in its powder form. It is clear or tea-colored when mixed with water.
Heroin in the form of pressed pills have been found in states such as Ohio, New Jersey and Florida. In 2014, the Pitman Police Department issued an alert on Facebook, warning that bluish-green tablets containing a mix of pressed heroin and oxycodone had surfaced in Pitman, New Jersey, and a neighboring county.
Fake pharmaceutical pills containing a mixture of heroin and fentanyl have also surfaced in South Florida, according to the Sun-Sentinel.
Heroin often comes in distinctive packaging designed to market a batch of the drug and protect it from the elements.
The drug is typically packaged in a stamp bag, a waxed packet or small plastic bag stamped with the dealer’s name brand or logo. A stamp bag usually contains about one-tenth of a gram of heroin.
Stamp bags can provide valuable clues about drug trends. Public health officials have been analyzing them in recent years to determine the makeup of heroin mixtures circulating on the streets.
A 2018 University of Pittsburgh report on stamp bags analyzed by the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office in Pennsylvania found that 2 percent of bags collected by county police in 2014 contained fentanyl, an opioid that is 25 to 50 times more potent than heroin. By 2014, about 17 percent of bags contained fentanyl or an analogue of the drug.
In the Western United States, black tar heroin is usually sold in small, colorful toy balloons. The amount inside is typically the size of a pencil eraser.
Drug dealers are also selling heroin in capsules in Baltimore and other parts of the country.
Heroin can sometimes be identified by the tools or equipment people use to inject, smoke or snort it.
Common paraphernalia used for injecting heroin includes:
People who smoke heroin will often have aluminum foil, lighters and candles. They commonly use objects such as straws or pipes to inhale the smoke.
Individuals who snort heroin will consume the drug through straws or other hollow tubes.
If you believe someone close to you may be using heroin, look for the physical signs of heroin use. By detecting heroin use early on and convincing your loved one to seek treatment from a qualified rehab facility, you can help the person reach sobriety and avoid a potentially fatal overdose.
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