- Understanding the Different Forms of Heroin
- What Is Heroin?
- White Powder Heroin
- Black Tar Heroin
- Brown Powder Heroin
- Purple and Blue Heroin
- The Different Forms of Heroin
- Heroin Fast Facts
- What does it look ?
- Who uses heroin?
- How is heroin abused?
- What are the risks?
- What is it called?
- Other products of interest:
- Contact us
- Heroin DrugFacts | National Institute on Drug Abuse
- How do people use heroin?
- What are the effects of heroin?
- Short-Term Effects
- Long-Term Effects
- Other Potential Effects
- Can a person overdose on heroin?
- How can a heroin overdose be treated?
- Is heroin addictive?
- How is heroin addiction treated?
- Heroin drug profile
- Molecular structure (1)
- Physical form
- Mode of use
- Other names
- Control status
- Medical use
Understanding the Different Forms of Heroin
The deadliest things seem the most harmless at first glance. Heroin is a little powder that is soft to the touch, snow. Yet it causes almost 20 percent of drug overdose deaths.
When news articles show pictures of heroin, they present it as a white, flaky substance. But the drug is far more versatile than that.
What are the different forms of heroin? Where are they available, and how do they affect the body? What are drugs that get mixed with heroin?
Answer these questions and you will go a long way toward understanding opioids. Here is your quick guide.
What Is Heroin?
Heroin is an opioid, which is a kind of drug that reduces pain. Heroin is created from morphine, an opiate substance derived from poppy plants.
In a clinical setting, morphine can help a patient recover from surgery or deal with chronic discomfort. But heroin also crosses the blood-brain barrier and binds to opioid receptors in it. As it binds to these receptors through the body it affects a person’s heart and breathing rates.
Heroin creates a euphoric feeling that encourages the person to use it again and again. As time goes on, these receptors become dependent on supplemental opioid use rather than the body’s natural opioid production. Then the body requires higher doses to feel euphoria, and without it a person may find themselves in great agony.
In strong enough doses, heroin can stop a person’s breathing. This cuts off the flow of oxygen to the brain, damaging it and killing the person.
All types of heroin can elicit these effects. But drug dealers can mix heroin with different substances, creating multiple kinds of heroin.
Heroin has many different street names. “Dope,” “smack,” “junk,” and “snow” are the most common ones. Some people may call it “beast” or “hero.”
White Powder Heroin
White powder heroin is the purest form of the drug. To make heroin, drug dealers collect sap from opium plants. They boil the sap with lime to produce a morphine paste.
They combine the paste with chemicals to convert it to heroin. White powder heroin is morphine paste combined with a few chemicals and prepared in little time.
This creates a highly potent and bitter drug. It can quickly enter the bloodstream, allowing the user to feel high in a few minutes. The user can smoke, inject, or snort the powder.
The heroin resembles flour and baking powder. To trick users, many dealers mix heroin with these substances. Most users do not notice until they inject the mixture into themselves and experience side effects.
Most forms of white powder come from Mexico and Colombia. It is popular in border states and the East Coast, but it can be found anywhere.
Black Tar Heroin
Black tar heroin is more refined than white powder but less so than other varieties. The refining process stops as soon as the morphine paste combines with chemicals.
Black tar is less pure than white powder. But it is a powerful version of heroin that delivers a quick high. Because the refining process is so short, it is less expensive and more available than other drugs.
As the name suggests, it looks chunks of hardened tar. Users often dissolve the chunks into small pieces and dilute it with water. Then heat the water, then inject the dirty concoction into their veins.
Black tar can come from anywhere since it is so easy to make. Many forms come from Mexico and are widespread across the southern United States.
Brown Powder Heroin
Brown powder heroin can comprise a few different products. It can be an impure version of white powder. It can be a refined version of black tar, combined with fillers lactose.
Brown powder is often cheap, making it desirable for novice drug users. It often does not dissolve in water, so most users smoke or snort it. This type of heroin is mostly made in Mexico and the United States.
Purple and Blue Heroin
Purple heroin is a mixture of acetaminophen, heroin and a new drug called brorphine (a synthetic opioid with a piperidine benzimidazolone structure).
Purple heroin is an incredibly potent form of the drug. It is extremely addictive and dangerous. Many users inject it into their bloodstream, increasing their risk for cardiac arrest.
Purple heroin has also been found to contain carfentanil — a drug that is 100 times stronger than fentanyl (which is already 50 times more potent than morphine).
Blue heroin is also a mixture of heroin and fentanyl. There are no substantial differences between purple and blue heroin, as they both contain deadly mixes of synthetic opioids and opioid analogs.
A speedball is a mixture of heroin and cocaine. The term does not refer to a separate kind of drug.
Cocaine is a stimulant, speeding up the central nervous system. This can cause the body to use more oxygen, at the same time that heroin is slowing the breathing rate down. The differing effects can induce respiratory failure and death.
A speedball is one of the most dangerous combinations of drugs. Even someone with a high drug tolerance can die from it. People addicted to it should get heroin and cocaine addiction treatment.
The Different Forms of Heroin
There are several different forms of heroin. They all create a euphoric feeling that can diminish pain and cause respiratory failure.
If you suffer from a heroin dependency or another opioid dependency, you should seek help. If you are in the Bay Area or Orange County area, Wavelengths recovery may be the right option for you.
Give us a call and we can get started on your individualized treatment plan today.
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Heroin Fast Facts
Heroin is a highly addictive and rapidly acting opiate (a drug that is derived from opium). Specifically, heroin is produced from morphine, which is a principal component of opium. Opium is a naturally occurring substance that is extracted from the seedpod of the opium poppy.
What does it look ?
The appearance of heroin can vary dramatically. In the eastern United States, heroin generally is sold as a powder that is white (or off-white) in color.
(Generally, the purer the heroin the whiter the color, because variations in color result from the presence of impurities.) In the western United States, most of the heroin available is a solid substance that is black in color.
This type of heroin, known as black tar, may be sticky ( tar) or hard to the touch. Powdered heroin that is a dirty brown color also is sold in the western United States.
Who uses heroin?
Individuals of all ages use heroin—data reported in the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse indicate that an estimated 3,091,000 U.S. residents aged 12 and older have used heroin at least once in their lifetime. The survey also revealed that many teenagers and young adults have used heroin at least once—76,000 individuals aged 12 to 17 and 474,000 individuals aged 18 to 25.
Heroin use among high school students is a particular problem. Nearly 2 percent of high school seniors in the United States used the drug at least once in their lifetime, and nearly half of those injected the drug, according to the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future Survey.
How is heroin abused?
Heroin is injected, snorted, or smoked. Many new, younger users begin by snorting or smoking heroin because they wish to avoid the social stigma attached to injection drug use. These users often mistakenly believe that snorting or smoking heroin will not lead to addiction.
Users who snort or smoke heroin at times graduate to injection because as their bodies become conditioned to the drug, the effects it produces are less intense.
They then turn to injection—a more efficient means of administering the drug—to try to attain the more intense effects they experienced when they began using the drug.
What are the risks?
Both new and experienced users risk overdosing on heroin because it is impossible for them to know the purity of the heroin they are using.
(Heroin sold on the street often is mixed with other substances such as sugar, starch, or quinine. An added risk results when heroin is mixed with poisons such as strychnine.
) Heroin overdoses—which can result whether the drug is snorted, smoked, or injected—can cause slow and shallow breathing, convulsions, coma, and even death.
All heroin users—not just those who inject the drug—risk becoming addicted. Individuals who abuse heroin over time develop a tolerance for the drug, meaning that they must use increasingly larger doses to achieve the same intensity or effect they experienced when they first began using the drug.
Heroin ceases to produce feelings of pleasure in users who develop tolerance; instead, these users must continue taking the drug simply to feel normal.
Addicted individuals who stop using the drug may experience withdrawal symptoms, which include heroin craving, restlessness, muscle and bone pain, and vomiting.
Heroin users who inject the drug expose themselves to additional risks, including contracting human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis B and C, and other blood-borne viruses. Chronic users who inject heroin also risk scarred or collapsed veins, infection of the heart lining and valves, abscesses, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and liver and kidney disease.
What is it called?
Street Terms for Heroin
Yes, heroin is illegal. Heroin is a Schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule I drugs have a high potential for abuse and serve no legitimate medical purpose in the United States.
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Heroin DrugFacts | National Institute on Drug Abuse
Heroin is an opioid drug made from morphine, a natural substance taken from the seed pod of the various opium poppy plants grown in Southeast and Southwest Asia, Mexico, and Colombia. Heroin can be a white or brown powder, or a black sticky substance known as black tar heroin.
How do people use heroin?
People inject, sniff, snort, or smoke heroin. Some people mix heroin with crack cocaine, a practice called speedballing.
What are the effects of heroin?
Heroin enters the brain rapidly and binds to opioid receptors on cells located in many areas, especially those involved in feelings of pain and pleasure and in controlling heart rate, sleeping, and breathing.
Prescription opioid pain medicines such as OxyContin® and Vicodin® have effects similar to heroin. Research suggests that misuse of these drugs may open the door to heroin use.
Data from 2011 showed that an estimated 4 to 6 percent who misuse prescription opioids switch to heroin1-3 and about 80 percent of people who used heroin first misused prescription opioids.1-3 More recent data suggest that heroin is frequently the first opioid people use.
In a study of those entering treatment for opioid use disorder, approximately one-third reported heroin as the first opioid they used regularly to get high.4
This suggests that prescription opioid misuse is just one factor leading to heroin use. Read more about this intertwined problem in our Prescription Opioids and Heroin Research Report.
People who use heroin report feeling a «rush» (a surge of pleasure, or euphoria). However, there are other common effects, including:
- dry mouth
- warm flushing of the skin
- heavy feeling in the arms and legs
- nausea and vomiting
- severe itching
- clouded mental functioning
- going «on the nod,» a back-and-forth state of being conscious and semiconscious
People who inject drugs such as heroin are at high risk of contracting the HIV and hepatitis C (HCV) virus.
These diseases are transmitted through contact with blood or other bodily fluids, which can occur when sharing needles or other injection drug use equipment.
HCV is the most common bloodborne infection in the Unites States. HIV (and less often HCV) can also be contracted during unprotected sex, which drug use makes more ly.
Read more about the connection between heroin and these diseases in our Heroin Research Report.
People who use heroin over the long term may develop:
- collapsed veins for people who inject the drug
- damaged tissue inside the nose for people who sniff or snort it
- infection of the heart lining and valves
- abscesses (swollen tissue filled with pus)
- constipation and stomach cramping
- liver and kidney disease
- lung complications, including pneumonia
- mental disorders such as depression and antisocial personality disorder
- sexual dysfunction for men
- irregular menstrual cycles for women
Other Potential Effects
Heroin often contains additives, such as sugar, starch, or powdered milk, that can clog blood vessels leading to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain, causing permanent damage. Also, sharing drug injection equipment and having impaired judgment from drug use can increase the risk of contracting infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis (see «Injection Drug Use, HIV, and Hepatitis»).
Can a person overdose on heroin?
Yes, a person can overdose on heroin. A heroin overdose occurs when a person uses enough of the drug to produce a life-threatening reaction or death. Heroin overdoses have increased in recent years.5
When people overdose on heroin, their breathing often slows or stops. This can decrease the amount of oxygen that reaches the brain, a condition called hypoxia. Hypoxia can have short- and long-term mental effects and effects on the nervous system, including coma and permanent brain damage.
How can a heroin overdose be treated?
Naloxone is a medicine that can treat an opioid overdose when given right away. It works by rapidly binding to opioid receptors and blocking the effects of heroin and other opioid drugs.
Sometimes more than one dose may be needed to help a person start breathing again, which is why it’s important to get the person to an emergency department or a doctor to receive additional support if needed.
Read more in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Opioid Overdose Prevention Toolkit.
Naloxone is available as an injectable (needle) solution and nasal sprays (NARCAN® Nasal Spray and KLOXXADO®). Friends, family, and others in the community can use the nasal spray versions of naloxone to save someone who is overdosing.
The rising number of opioid overdose deaths has led to an increase in public health efforts to make naloxone available to at-risk persons and their families, as well as first responders and others in the community. Some states have passed laws that allow pharmacists to dispense naloxone without a prescription from a person’s personal doctor.
Read more about naloxone in Naloxone DrugFacts.
Is heroin addictive?
Heroin is highly addictive. People who regularly use heroin often develop a tolerance, which means that they need higher and/or more frequent doses of the drug to get the desired effects.
A substance use disorder (SUD) is when continued use of the drug causes issues, such as health problems and failure to meet responsibilities at work, school, or home.
An SUD can range from mild to severe, the most severe form being addiction.
Those who are addicted to heroin and stop using the drug abruptly may have severe withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms—which can begin as early as a few hours after the drug was last taken—include:
- severe muscle and bone pain
- sleep problems
- diarrhea and vomiting
- cold flashes with goose bumps («cold turkey»)
- uncontrollable leg movements («kicking the habit»)
- severe heroin cravings
Researchers are studying the long-term effects of opioid addiction on the brain. Studies have shown some loss of the brain’s white matter associated with heroin use, which may affect decision-making, behavior control, and responses to stressful situations.6–8
How is heroin addiction treated?
A range of treatments including medicines and behavioral therapies are effective in helping people stop heroin use. It’s important to match the best treatment approach to meet the particular needs of each individual patient.
There are medicines being developed to help with the withdrawal process. The FDA approved lofexidine, a non-opioid medicine designed to reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms.
Medicines to help people stop using heroin include buprenorphine and methadone. They work by binding to the same opioid receptors in the brain as heroin, but more weakly, reducing cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Another treatment is naltrexone, which blocks opioid receptors and prevents opioid drugs from having an effect.
A NIDA study found that once treatment is initiated, both a buprenorphine/naloxone combination and an extended release naltrexone formulation are similarly effective in addiction.
Because full detoxification is necessary for treatment with naloxone, initiating treatment among active users was difficult, but once detoxification was complete, both medications had similar effectiveness.
Behavioral therapies for heroin addiction include methods called cognitive-behavioral therapy and contingency management. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps modify the patient’s drug-use expectations and behaviors, and helps effectively manage triggers and stress.
Contingency management provides motivational incentives, such as vouchers or small cash rewards for positive behaviors such as staying drug-free. These behavioral treatment approaches are especially effective when used along with medicines.
Read more about drug addiction treatment in our Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction DrugFacts.
- Heroin is an opioid drug made from morphine, a natural substance taken from the seed pod of various opium poppy plants.
- Heroin can be a white or brown powder, or a black sticky substance known as black tar heroin.
- People inject, sniff, snort, or smoke heroin. Some people mix heroin with crack cocaine, called speedballing.
- Heroin enters the brain rapidly and binds to opioid receptors on cells located in many areas, especially those involved in feelings of pain and pleasure and in controlling heart rate, sleeping, and breathing.
- People who use heroin report feeling a «rush» (or euphoria). Other common effects include dry mouth, heavy feelings in the arms and legs, and clouded mental functioning.
- Long-term effects may include collapsed veins, infection of the heart lining and valves, abscesses, and lung complications.
- Research suggests that misuse of prescription opioid pain medicine is a risk factor for starting heroin use.
- A person can overdose on heroin. Naloxone is a medicine that can treat a heroin overdose when given right away, though more than one dose may be needed.
- Heroin can lead to addiction, a form of substance use disorder. Withdrawal symptoms include severe muscle and bone pain, sleep problems, diarrhea and vomiting, and severe heroin cravings.
- A range of treatments including medicines and behavioral therapies are effective in helping people stop heroin use. However, treatment plans should be individualized to meet the needs of the patient.
- Cicero TJ, Ellis MS, Surratt HL, Kurtz SP. The Changing Face of Heroin Use in the United States: A Retrospective Analysis of the Past 50 Years. JAMA Psychiatry. 2014;71(7):821-826. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.366.
- Carlson RG, Nahhas RW, Martins SS, Daniulaityte R.
Predictors of transition to heroin use among initially non-opioid dependent illicit pharmaceutical opioid users: A natural history study. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2016;160:127-134. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2015.12.026.
- Cicero TJ, Ellis MS, Kasper ZA. Increased use of heroin as an initiating opioid of abuse. Addict Behav. 2017 Nov;74:63-66. doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2017.05.030.
Epub 2017 May 23. PubMed PMID: 28582659. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28582659
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Multiple Cause of Death, 1999-2015. CDC WONDER Online Database. https://wonder.cdc.gov/mcd-icd10.html. Accessed April 4, 2017.
- Li W, Li Q, Zhu J, et al.
White matter impairment in chronic heroin dependence: a quantitative DTI study. Brain Res. 2013;1531:58-64. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2013.07.036.
- Liu J, Qin W, Yuan K, et al. Interaction between dysfunctional connectivity at rest and heroin cues-induced brain responses in male abstinent heroin-dependent individuals. PloS One. 2011;6(10):e23098. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.
- Qiu Y, Jiang G, Su H, et al. Progressive white matter microstructure damage in male chronic heroin dependent individuals: a DTI and TBSS study. PloS One. 2013;8(5):e63212. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063212.
This publication is available for your use and may be reproduced in its entirety without permission from NIDA.
Citation of the source is appreciated, using the following language: Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
NIDA. 2021, June 1. Heroin DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/heroin
NIDA. «Heroin DrugFacts.» National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1 Jun. 2021, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/heroin
NIDA. Heroin DrugFacts. National Institute on Drug Abuse website. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/heroin. June 1, 2021
Heroin drug profile
Heroin is a crude preparation of diamorphine. It is a semisynthetic product obtained by acetylation of morphine, which occurs as a natural product in opium: the dried latex of certain poppy species (e.g. Papaver somniferum L.).
Diamorphine is a narcotic analgesic used in the treatment of severe pain. Illicit heroin may be smoked or solubilised with a weak acid and injected. Whereas opium has been smoked since historical times, diamorphine was first synthesised in the late nineteenth century.
Heroin is under international control.
Molecular structure (1)
Molecular formula: C21H23NO5
Molecular weight: 369.4 g/mol
Diamorphine (diacetylmorphine; CAS-561-27-3) is produced by the acetylation of crude morphine. The systematic name (IUPAC) is (5α,6α)-7,8-didehydro-4,5-epoxy-17-methylmorphinan-3,6-diol acetate. Although five pairs of enantiomers are theoretically possible in morphine, only one occurs naturally (5R, 6S, 9R, 13S, 14R).
(1) Diacetylmorphine: the principal psychoactive constituent of heroin
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South-west Asian heroin is a brown powder usually in the form of the free base, which is insoluble in water but soluble in organic solvents. The less common south-east Asian heroin is usually a white powder in the form of the hydrate hydrochloride salt (CAS-1502-95-0), which is soluble in water but insoluble in organic solvents.
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Diamorphine, morphine and many other opioids, produces analgesia. It behaves as an agonist at a complex group of receptors (the μ, κ and δ subtypes) that are normally acted upon by endogenous peptides known as endorphins. Apart from analgesia, diamorphine produces drowsiness, euphoria and a sense of detachment.
Negative effects include respiratory depression, nausea and vomiting, decreased motility in the gastrointestinal tract, suppression of the cough reflex and hypothermia. Tolerance and physical dependence occur on repeated use. Cessation of use in tolerant subjects leads to characteristic withdrawal symptoms.
Subjective effects following injection are known as ‘the rush’ and are associated with feelings of warmth and pleasure, followed by a longer period of sedation. Diamorphine is 2–3 times more potent than morphine. The estimated minimum lethal dose is 200 mg, but addicts may be able to tolerate ten times as much.
Following injection, diamorphine crosses the blood–brain barrier within 20 seconds, with almost 70 % of the dose reaching the brain. It is difficult to detect in blood because of rapid hydrolysis to 6-monoacetylmorphine and slower conversion to morphine, the main active metabolite. The plasma half-life of diamorphine is about three minutes.
Morphine is excreted in the urine largely as the glucuronide conjugate. Diamorphine is associated with far more accidental overdoses and fatal poisonings than any other scheduled substance. Much morbidity is caused by infectious agents transmitted by unhygienic injection.
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The latex from the seed capsules of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum L.) is allowed to dry. This material (opium) is dispersed in an aqueous solution of calcium hydroxide (slaked lime).
The alkalinity is adjusted by adding ammonium chloride, causing morphine base to precipitate. The separated morphine is boiled with acetic anhydride. Sodium carbonate is added, causing the crude diamorphine base to separate.
Depending on the region, this may be used directly, further purified or converted into the hydrochloride salt.
Until the late 1970s, nearly all heroin consumed in Europe came from south-east Asia, but now most originates from south-west Asia, an area centred on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Heroin is also produced in certain parts of South America, but that material is rarely seen in Europe.
Acetic anhydride, an essential precursor in the manufacture of heroin, is listed in Table I of the United Nations 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. The corresponding EU legislation is set out in Council Regulation (EEC) No 3677/90 (as later amended), which governs trade between the EU and third countries.
As with other naturally occurring drugs of misuse, total synthesis of the active principles is not currently an economic proposition.
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Mode of use
Heroin from south-west Asia may be ‘smoked’ by heating the solid on a metal foil above a small flame and inhaling the vapour. Those intending to inject this form of heroin must first solubilise it with, for example, citric acid or ascorbic acid.
Heroin from south-east Asia is suitable for direct injection of a solution. A typical dose is 100 mg at street level purity.
Except when used therapeutically as an analgesic drug, ingestion of diamorphine/heroin is a much less effective route of administration.
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A large number of street terms are in use, including horse, smack, shit and brown.
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In common with many other opioids, the Marquis field test produces a violet/purple coloration. In the mass spectrum, the major ions are m/z = 327, 43, 369, 268, 310, 42, 215 and 204. Using gas chromatography, the limit of detection of both diamorphine and 6-monoacetylmorphine is 100 μg/L.
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Heroin is listed in Schedule I of the United Nations 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Diamorphine is also included in a generic sense since the 1972 Protocol, which revised the 1961 Convention, extended control to esters and ethers of scheduled substances. Thus, diamorphine is the diacetyl ester of morphine (Schedule 1).
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Diamorphine is a narcotic analgesic with limited use in the treatment of severe pain.
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Cooper, D. A. (1989), ‘Clandestine production processes for cocaine and heroin’, in: Klein, M., Sapienza, F., McClain, H. and Khan, I. (eds.) Clandestinely produced drugs, analogues and precursors: problems and solutions, United States Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration, Washington, DC.
King, L. A. and McDermott, S. (2004), ‘Drugs of abuse’, in: Moffat, A. C., Osselton, M. D. and Widdop, B. (eds.), Clarke's analysis of drugs and poisons, 3rd edn, Vol. 1, pp. 37–52, Pharmaceutical Press, London.
Moffat, A. C., Osselton, M, D. and Widdop, B, (eds.) (2004), Clarke's analysis of drugs and poisons, 3rd edn, Vol. 2, Pharmaceutical Press, London.
Schiff, P. L. (2002), ‘Opium and its alkaloids’, American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education 66, pp. 186–194.
United Nations (2006), Multilingual Dictionary of Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances under International Control, United Nations, New York.
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2004), World Drug Report 2004, Vol. 1: Analysis, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Vienna (http://www.unodc.org/pdf/WDR_2004/volume_1.pdf).