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Types of Heroin Explained

There are several primary types of heroin.

Each type has its own color and texture. They are often cut with different agents to stretch the amount of cocaine in batches further.

In many cases, the type of heroin people use depends on the region where they live. Certain types are more common in specific areas.

Rates of Use

In the U.S., rates of heroin use have been increasing since 2007.
In 2016, approximately 948,000 people in the U.S. said they used heroin within the year, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In 2016, about 170,000 people who used heroin did so for the first time.

White Powder Heroin

This type of heroin is most common east of the Mississippi River, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. It is typically imported from South America and Mexico.
White powder heroin can range in color from beige to pink to white, depending on the cutting agent that is used.

Compared to brown powder heroin and black tar heroin, white powder heroin is usually more refined. This can make it more potent.
People can snort this heroin, but they tend to inject it because it is water soluble. Its higher burning temperature makes it hard to smoke.

To purify this type of heroin, someone uses either hydrochloric acid or ether, making the mixture flammable and dangerous. This also contributes to this heroin’s higher level of purity compared to black and brown types.

Black Tar Heroin

Black tar heroin has been most available west of the Mississippi River since the mid-1990s. In most cases, this type comes from Mexico.
It ranges from brown to dark orange in color. The texture varies from being hard like coal to sticky like tar.

The refinement process used to make this heroin often leaves contaminants behind. This results in this heroin type often smelling strongly of vinegar.

Brown Powder Heroin

The first stage of purifying impure heroin turns the product brown. While this type is most common in the western U.S., it is becoming more popular along the East Coast and in the Midwest. It is produced in Mexico.

People usually snort or smoke this type of heroin because of its lower burning temperature.
To transform this heroin type into a liquid to inject it, people use heat and an acid, such as ascorbic acid, citric acid, or lemon juice, according to an article published in Substance Use and Misuse

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China White Heroin

In the 1950s, “China White” referred to a type of heroin that was very pure, according to the Harm Reduction Coalition. However, in the 1970s, this term was used to describe a mixture of heroin and fentanyl.

Heroin and fentanyl are essentially cousins. Both are opioids, but fentanyl is a synthetic type.
To compare the strength of each drug, the average lethal dose of heroin is approximately 30 milligrams while the average lethal dose of fentanyl is about 3 milligrams.
Combining heroin and fentanyl creates a very high potential for overdose. Most opioid overdoses in the U.S. involve fentanyl.

needle and spoon next to some type of heroin

Cheese Heroin

Cheese heroin is a combination of over-the-counter cold medicine and black tar heroin. The mixture causes a slowing of body processes, posing the risk of stopping the heart.

People snort this drug. It looks like and has a texture similar to, parmesan cheese.
Middle school and high school students commonly use this type of heroin.

A Speedball With Heroin

This type of heroin is mixed with cocaine or another stimulant. Taking both of these drugs together causes a “push-pull” effect since cocaine is a stimulant and heroin is a depressant.
Heroin reduces the respiration rate, while cocaine and other stimulants increase it. This causes significant stress on the heart, brain, and lungs.

A speedball increases the risk of overdose due to the following reasons:

  • Each drug tells the body to use very different levels of oxygen.
  • There are more drugs for the body to process.
  • When someone is speedballing, they tend to take doses more frequently compared to people only using heroin.

Someone might inject or snort these drugs at the same time. As the cocaine wears off, one of the biggest concerns is respiratory failure, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. This is because respiratory depression from heroin lasts longer than the increased respiratory rate of cocaine.
Once the cocaine’s effects wear off, the person experiences the full effects of heroin. Since they have likely taken higher doses of heroin than they would if taking heroin alone, it can quickly lead to overdose.

Why Is Heroin Cut With Other Substances?

There are various cutting agents dealers use to extend their supplies of heroin and increase their profits. Each cutting agent can produce its own negative effects.
In most cases, people who use heroin do not know what someone has cut a batch with, and this poses additional dangers.

In general, the shinier and whiter heroin looks, the purer it is. Heroin that has been heavily cut is usually darker and duller.

What Is Used to Cut Heroin?

This drug is being commonly used to cut heroin. Due to the incredibly high potency of fentanyl, rates of fatal opioid overdose are spiking.

Powdered milk, sugar, starch, and brick dust are used to stretch batches of heroin, according to NBC News

This medication helps to reduce certain heroin withdrawal symptoms, such as runny nose and insomnia. However, when someone takes the drug at high doses, psychosis is possible. It is not possible to fully control the dose, so someone using heroin will not know how much dextromethorphan they are getting.

This drug is used to treat malaria. It has a taste similar to heroin, so it can be more difficult to detect. Some people report that it increases the euphoria they get with heroin. When someone injects quinine, it can increase the risk of overdose and cause blindness, according to an article in Wired.

Even in small doses, injecting quinine can cause ringing in the ears, visual disturbances, nausea, diarrhea, headaches, vertigo, and vomiting, according to a report in Clinical Toxicology. It may also cause low blood pressure and increase the risk of blood clots.

Heroin may be cut with procaine, lidocaine, and similar anesthetics to increase cravings and cause addiction to manifest faster, according to an article in The New York Times. It is possible for someone to have an allergic reaction to these drugs. In the most severe cases, it could be anaphylaxis, which is potentially fatal without prompt treatment.

Heroin may be cut with possible toxins, such as Clostridium botulinum and strychnine.
When someone uses soil to cut black tar heroin, botulism is possible since spores can be present in it. While wound botulism is rare, it is possible when injecting heroin where the toxin is present. This infection can cause blurry or double vision, problems with breathing, eyelid drooping, paralysis, and slurred speech, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Strychnine comes from a plant found in Australia and southern Asia. It is most often used as a poison for rats.
Within 15 to 60 minutes of poisoning, the following symptoms are possible:

  • Agitation or fear
  • Startling easily
  • Painful muscle spasms
  • Rigid extremities
  • Muscle soreness and pain
  • Dark urine
  • Restlessness
  • Neck and back arching that cannot be controlled
  • Jaw tightness
  • Trouble breathing

Every Type of Heroin Carries Major Risks

No type of heroin is safer than another. All types pose the risk of overdose and other serious health effects.


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(April 2015) National Heroin Threat Assessment Summary. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Retrieved February 2019 from

(September 1972). The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia. Retrieved February 2019 from

Brown vs White Heroin. Academia. Retrieved February 2019 from

(May 2001). Different Forms of Heroin and Their Relationship to Cook-Up Techniques, Data On, and Explanation of, Use of Lemon Juice and Other Acids. Substance Abuse and Misuse. Retrieved February 2019 from

(September 2016). Why Fentanyl is Deadlier than Heroin, In a Single Photo. Stat News. Retrieved February 2019 from

(May 2010). Cheap, Ultra-Pure Heroin Kills Instantly. NBC News. Retrieved February 2019 from

(May 2010). Cheap, Ultra-Pure Heroin Kills Instantly. NBC News. Retrieved February 2019 from

(January 2011). What’s Inside: Street Heroin. Wired. Retrieved February 2019 from

(May 1999). Getting Hooked Faster, but Why? The New York Times. Retrieved February 2019 from

(1975) Heroin and Cocaine Adulteration. Clinical Toxicology. Retrieved February 2019 from

(January 2019) Wound Botulism Outbreak Among Persons Who Use Black Tar Heroin – San Diego County, California, 2017-2018. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved February 2019 from

Strychnine. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved February 2019 from

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