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In one of the most vivid scenes from the movie The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her companions set out across a vivid field of poppies. Dorothy begins to stumble, her eyes closed, and she collapses into the flowers. The exact details aren't accurate—the scent of opium poppies do not cause any effects—but there's no doubt that Dorothy has fallen under the influence of opiates.

Poppy farmers would have viewed Dorothy's field as a potential source of illegal drug profit. The poppy sheds its petals shortly after blooming, and growers cut into the seed pod and harvest the sap. As it dries, the sap hardens into a dark brown gum—crude opium. Treatment with a few chemicals can isolate morphine, the active ingredient that gives opium its narcotic, or opioid, properties.

Morphine, in turn, can be further refined by treatment and purification with more chemicals. The result is the drug diacetylmorphine, known commonly as heroin. Most often, it is sold as a white or brownish powder. The chemical company Bayer thought that its new drug—the name of which is derived from the German heroisch, or “heroic”—had potential to treat tuberculosis when it was first marketed in 1898. The scientists who studiedthe drug probably never suspected that in a hundred years, heroin would overshadow tuberculosis as a public health threat.

Heroin and morphine are opiates. Opiates are chemicals that are derived from opium. Codeine and oxycodone (sold as Percodan and the longer-lasting OxyContin) are also opiates.

Highly addictive and fatal at large doses, heroin was made illegal in 1956. Heroin is dangerous to the user; it can cause death, permanent health damage, and the deterioration of the quality of one's life. It is dangerous to others. Family and friends often feel the impact of the user's actions, and the user can unintentionally injure other people while impaired. It is dangerous to society. Heroin activity can tarnish communities, and one way or another, the public often ends up paying for a heroin addict's habit.

Despite these realities, about 1.5 percent of all Americans have tried heroin, according to the 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). This equals about 3.8 million people. About 91,000 people had used the drug for the first time within the past year, and the average age of a first-time user was 20.7 years old. There was no major increase or decrease in these statistics for first-time users from 2005.

Rates of heroin use among prisoners is much higher, as reported by the Bureau of Justice. In 2004, about 23.5 percent of state prisoners and 17.9 percent of federal prisoners reported that they had tried heroin or other opiates. About 15 percent of state prisoners and 9.2 percent of federal prisoners indicated that theyhad used heroin regularly at some point in their lives, meaning at least once weekly for a month or longer.

The University of Michigan tracks the attitudes toward drugs of young people in their annual Monitoring the Future survey. In 2007, 1.3 percent of all eighth graders and 1.5 percent of all tenth and twelfth graders reported that they had tried heroin. When asked about their opinions on heroin use, 60.3 percent of eighth graders, 70.5 percent of tenth graders, and 60.2 percent of twelfth graders agreed that trying heroin once or twice without using a needle was a “great risk.” When asked whether they thought it would be possible for them to obtain heroin, 12.6 percent of eighth graders, 17.3 percent of tenth graders, and 29.7 percent of twelfth graders responded that it would be “fairly easy” or “very easy” to obtain.

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Science EncyclopediaCommon Street Drugs