Heroin – Overview

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What is heroin?

Heroin is an illegal, highly addictive drug processed from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seedpod of certain varieties of poppy plants.

It is typically sold as a white or brownish powder that is “cut” with sugars, starch, powdered milk, or quinine.

Pure heroin is a white powder with a bitter taste. Important: Just because a drug is pure does not mean that it is healthy or good for you. It can be toxic or poisonous to your body.

Highly pure heroin can be snorted or smoked and may be more appealing to new users because it eliminates the stigma associated with injection drug use. “Black tar” heroin is sticky like roofing tar or hard like coal. Its dark color results from crude processing methods that leave behind impurities.

Impure heroin is usually dissolved, diluted, and injected into veins, muscles, or under the skin.

What is a prescription opioid?

Opioids are medications that relieve pain. They reduce the intensity of pain signals reaching the brain and affect those brain areas controlling emotion, which diminishes the effects of a painful stimulus.

Medications that fall within this class include hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin), oxycodone (e.g., OxyContin, Percocet), morphine (e.g., Kadian, Avinza), codeine, and related drugs.

  • Hydrocodone products are the most commonly prescribed for a variety of painful conditions, including dental and injury-related pain.

  • Morphine is often used before and after surgical procedures to alleviate severe pain.

  • Codeine is often prescribed for mild pain or other conditions such as coughs.

Prescription opioid drugs have valid medical uses, but they also have a high propensity for misuse/abuse and can be extremely addictive.

What do prescription opioids have to do with heroin?

The use of painkillers and heroin have similar effects on the body, producing the same “high.” Often users, especially young people, start off misusing prescription drugs then switch to heroin when it becomes harder to obtain the prescription meds they’ve become addicted to.

Why is it a big deal to use heroin?

Heroin is illegal. Heroin is a controlled substance. Heroin is highly addictive. The following facts highlight why it is a “big deal” to use and abuse heroin:

  • Heroin is a highly addictive drug that can be injected, snorted/sniffed, or smoked. It enters the brain very quickly. Contrary to popular opinion, all three methods can lead to addiction and other severe health problems.

  • There is no “cookie cutter” or easily identified heroin user. Many of heroin’s newest addicts are in their teens or early 20s; anyone can become addicted.

  • Tolerance to heroin develops with regular use so after a short time more heroin is needed to produce the same level of intensity. This results in addiction. Health risks to using heroin include fatal overdose, high risk of infections such as HIV/AIDS, collapsed veins, infection of the heart lining and valves, and liver disease.

  • Toxic ingredients are usually mixed with heroin so the true purity of the drug and its strength are hard to know.

  • When an addict stops using, physical withdrawal symptoms can start in just a few hours. Symptoms include restlessness, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps, and muscle and bone pain. Major withdrawal symptoms peak between 48 and 72 hours after the last dose and can last up to a week. Depending on your situation, you could be doing this while in jail. Sudden withdrawal by heavy users can be fatal.

  • Craving heroin can persist for years after drug use stops. It can be triggered by exposure to stress or by people, places, or things associated with drug use. Withdrawal can last a lifetime.

  • In addition to heroin’s devastating effect on your body, it’s illegal and its use and possession carry severe punishments.

Possible Health Effects


Short-term Euphoria; warm flushing of skin; dry mouth; heavy feeling in the hands and feet; clouded thinking; alternate wakeful and drowsy states; itching; nausea; vomiting; slowed breathing and heart rate.


Collapsed veins; abscesses (swollen tissue with pus); infection of the lining and valves in the heart; constipation and stomach cramps; liver or kidney disease; pneumonia.

Other health-related issues

Pregnancy: miscarriage, low birth weight, neonatal abstinence syndrome. Risk of HIV, hepatitis, and other infectious diseases from shared needles.

In combination with alcohol

Dangerous slowdown of heart rate and breathing, coma, death.

Withdrawal symptoms

Restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps (“cold turkey”), leg movements.

(NIH: National Institute on Drug Abuse from

What is an overdose?

An overdose occurs when someone takes too much of a substance. A heroin overdose can cause serious, harmful symptoms, or even death. Heroin slows, and sometimes stops, breathing. If death is not immediate, heroin can cause blood pressure drop, heart failure, pulmonary edema, and depressed respiration, all of which can also lead to death.

Overdose can also happen when a heroin user takes more heroin than their body is used to – possibly because they were recently in rehab and their tolerance is reduced, or because the drug is stronger than they thought (since heroin is illegal, no one regulates the strength of street drugs, or the substances used to cut them).

Signs of a heroin overdose include slow breathing, blue lips and fingernails, cold damp skin, and shaking. It is critical that someone who is overdosing get immediate medical attention, as the person may die if left untreated.

Good Samaritan Law

Under Code of Virginia § 18.2-251.03, someone who seeks or obtains emergency medical attention for himself or for another individual because of a drug- or alcohol-related overdose in progress may be protected from being convicted for certain possession or intoxication crimes if the person reports an overdose to a firefighter, EMS personnel, or a law enforcement officer (most commonly by calling 911 for emergency medical response).

To be eligible for this “affirmative defense,” the person reporting the overdose must identify themselves as being the one who reported the overdose, and must be cooperative with any law enforcement investigation that results from the overdose.

How is heroin classified in the schedules in Virginia's Drug Control Act?

The Virginia Drug Control Act places controlled substances into six categories called “schedules” depending upon the drug’s acceptable medical use and the drug’s abuse or dependency potential. (Code of Virginia §§ 54.1-3446 through 54.1-3456) Virginia’s Drug Control Act reflects the drug classifications in the Federal Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970.

The Schedules are described below. Note that all Schedule I drugs (except marijuana pursuant to a valid prescription and for a limited purpose) and many Schedule II drugs are illegal to possess.

Schedule I drugs have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use, and include heroin and LSD.

Schedule II drugs have a high potential for abuse and severe dependence, but have a currently accepted medical use. Schedule II drugs include PCP, cocaine, methadone, and methamphetamine.

Schedule III drugs have less potential for abuse than Schedule II drugs, a potential for moderate dependency and an accepted medical use. Anabolic steroids and codeine fall into this category.

Schedule IV drugs have less potential for abuse than Schedule III drugs, a limited potential for dependency, and are accepted in medical treatment. Schedule IV drugs include Valium, Xanax and other tranquilizers and sedatives.

Schedule V drugs have a low potential for abuse, limited risk for dependency and accepted medical uses. These include drugs like cough medicines with codeine.

Schedule VI includes certain substances which are not “drugs” in the conventional sense, but are nonetheless used, or abused, recreationally; these include toluene (found in many types of paint, especially spray paint) and similar inhalants such as amyl nitrite (or “poppers”), butyl nitrite, and nitrous oxide (found in many types of aerosol cans, though it is pharmacologically active, it is considered an inhalant). Many state and local governments enforce age limits on the sale of products containing these substances.

What types of drug crimes are covered under Virginia law?

There are three major crimes involving drugs in Viginia: possession, distribution, and manufacturing.

The crime of drug possession occurs when a person possesses any controlled substance without a valid prescription (Code of Virginia § 18.2-250).

The crime of drug sale or distribution occurs when a person sells, provides, gives away, delivers, or distributes a controlled substance.

The crime drug manufacturing occurs when a person produces a controlled substance without legal authorization or possesses chemicals used in the manufacture of a controlled substance with intent to manufacture.

Code of Virginia § 54.1-3401 contains the following definitions:

“Sale” includes barter, exchange, or gift, or offer therefore, and each such transaction made by any person, whether as an individual, proprietor, agent, servant, or employee.

“Distribute” means to deliver other than by administering or dispensing a controlled substance.

“Manufacture” means the production, preparation, propagation, conversion, or processing of any item regulated by this chapter, either directly or indirectly by extraction from substances of natural origin, or independently by means of chemical synthesis, or by a combination of extraction and chemical synthesis, and includes any packaging or repackaging of the substance or labeling or relabeling of its container. This term does not include compounding.

Penalties for heroin crimes

Crimes involving heroin fall into Schedule I violations, and penalties depend on whether the crime involves possession, sale, distribution, or manufacturing. The table below provides a simple overview of possible penalties for heroin use and how it relates to other drugs:


Penalties (Code of Virginia § 18.2-248)


Possession of Schedule I or II controlled substance

Class 5 felony – imprisonment of one to 10 years, or confinement in jail for up to 12 months and a fine of up to $2,500, either or both.

Possession of Schedule III controlled substance

Class 1 misdemeanor – confinement in jail for up to 12 months and a fine of up to $2,500, either or both.

Possession of Schedule IV controlled substance

Class 2 misdemeanor – confinement in jail for up to six months and a fine of up to $1,000, either or both.

Possession of Schedule V controlled substance

Class 3 misdemeanor – fine of up to $500.

Possession of Schedule VI controlled substance

Class 4 misdemeanor – fine of up to $250.

Possession of marijuana, upon conviction, exposes the violator to a misdemeanor conviction for which the punishment is:

Misdemeanor confinement in jail for up to 30 days and a fine of up to $500, either or both.

Upon a second conviction, punishment is confinement in jail for up to one year and a fine of up to $2,500, either or both.

Intent to sell or distribute (Code of Virginia § 18.2-248)

Possession of Schedule I or II controlled substance with the intent to sell or otherwise distribute

Felony conviction - imprisonment from five to 40 years and a fine of up to $500,000.

Upon a second conviction, the violator must be imprisoned for not less than five years but may suffer life imprisonment, and fined up to $500,000.

Possession of Schedules III, IV, or V controlled substance with the intent to sell or otherwise distribute

Misdemeanor conviction - confinement in jail for up to one year and a fine of up to $2,500, either or both.

Possession of less than one-half ounce of marijuana with intent to sell or otherwise distribute

Misdemeanor conviction - confinement in jail for up to one year and a fine of up to $2,500, either or both.

Possession of more than one-half ounce to five pounds of marijuana with intent to sell or otherwise distribute

Felony conviction - imprisonment from one to 10 years, or at the discretion of the jury or the court trying the case without a jury, confinement in jail for up to one year and a fine of up to $2,500, either or both.

Felony conviction, see Code of Virginia § 18.2-10; Misdemeanor conviction, see Code of Virginia § 18.2-11

What if I posses or distribute heroin at school?

The school is required by law to notify the local law enforcement agency when any student has committed certain offenses, including any conduct involving alcohol, marijuana, a controlled substance, imitation controlled substance, or an anabolic steroid. (Code of Virginia § 22.1-279.3:1.(A) and the enhanced penalties Code of Virginia § 18.2-255.2).

You will be subject to both school disciplinary action and criminal action.

Code of Virginia § 22.1-277.08 requires local school board policies to provide for the expulsion of any student determined to have brought a controlled substance, imitation controlled substance, or marijuana onto school property or to a school-sponsored activity.

Can law enforcement search for drugs at my school?

Yes. Law enforcement officers may periodically make unannounced visits to any public school for the purpose of detecting the presence of illegal drugs. Drug dogs are one method that law enforcement officers may use to search for drugs.

What if a law enforcement officer finds heroin in my possession?

The law enforcement officer will confiscate the controlled substance and charge you with possession of a controlled substance in violation of Code of Virginia § 18.2-250. Depending on the amount you have in your possession, the officer may also charge you with the crime of distribution of a controlled substance in violation of Code of Virginia § 18.2-255. Note that “drug possession” is not limited to drugs kept on your person, but may also apply to drugs kept in places that are in your custody or control, such as a car or locker, depending on the circumstances.

There is a “Drug-free School Zone” sign at my school. What does this mean?

“Drug-free School Zone” is a term used in the United States to denote an area within a certain distance, most commonly 1,000 feet, of the nearest school, park, or other public area. Signs to this effect are generally posted along all public streets at the entrances to such an area. Crimes committed in these zones are often subject to additional penalties.

Resources for those in need

If you, or a friend of yours, are in crisis and need to speak with someone now, please do.

Talk to a trusted adult or school official about any potential use of heroin. Help is available!


Additional Information

About the Virginia Drug Control Act
Visit Virginia General Assembly, Legislative Information System

NIDA for teens

Above the influence

Sink or Swim: