By Anthony McDaniel, M.D.
Heroin (diacetylmorphine (INN)), also known as diamorphine (BAN), is a semi-synthetic opioid drug synthesized from morphine, a derivative of the opium poppy. It is the 3,6-diacetyl ester of morphine (di (two)-acetyl-morphine). The white crystalline form is commonly the hydrochloride salt diacetylmorphine hydrochloride, though often adulterated thus dulling the sheen and consistency from that to a matte white powder, which diacetylmorphine freebase typically is. 90% of diacetylmorphine is thought to be produced in Afghanistan. As with other opioids, diacetylmorphine is used as both an analgesic and a recreational drug. Frequent and regular administration is associated with tolerance and physical dependence, which may develop into addiction. Internationally, diacetylmorphine is controlled under Schedules I and IV of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. It is illegal to manufacture, possess, or sell diacetylmorphine without a license in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Iran, India, the Netherlands, the United States, Australia, Canada, Ireland, Pakistan, the United Kingdom and Swaziland.
Under the chemical name diamorphine, diacetylmorphine is a legally prescribed controlled drug in the United Kingdom. It is available for prescription to long-term users in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark alongside psycho-social care, and a similar programme is being campaigned for by liberal political parties in Norway. Some countries allow the government to sell or donate high-quality seizures of drugs and precursors which are otherwise legal for medicinal use to pharmaceutical manufacturers for use in preparing licit supplies of medical drugs and research chemicals; this was the case in Croatia prior to 2007.
Diacetylmorphine is used as a recreational drug for the transcendent relaxation and intense euphoria it induces. Anthropologist Michael Agar once described diacetylmorphine as "the perfect whatever drug." Tolerance quickly develops, and users need more of the drug to achieve the same effects. Its popularity with recreational drug users, compared to morphine, reportedly stems from its perceived different effects. In particular, users report an intense rush, an acute transcendent state of euphoria, that occurs while the diacetylmorphine is being metabolized into 6-monoacetylmorphine (6-MAM) and morphine in the brain. Diacetylmorphine produces more euphoria than other opioids upon injection. One possible explanation is the presence of 6-monoacetylmorphine, a metabolite unique to diacetylmorphine. While other opioids of recreational use, such as codeine, produce only morphine, diacetylmorphine also leaves 6-MAM, also a psycho-active metabolite. However, this perception is not supported by the results of clinical studies comparing the physiological and subjective effects of injected diacetylmorphine and morphine in individuals formerly addicted to opioids; these subjects showed no preference for one drug over the other. Equipotent injected doses had comparable action courses, with no difference in subjects' self-rated feelings of euphoria, ambition, nervousness, relaxation, drowsiness, or sleepiness. Short-term addiction studies by the same researchers demonstrated that tolerance developed at a similar rate to both diacetylmorphine and morphine. When compared to the opioids hydromorphone, fentanyl, oxycodone, and pethidine/meperidine, former addicts showed a strong preference for diacetylmorphine and morphine, suggesting that diacetylmorphine and morphine are particularly susceptible to abuse and addiction. Morphine and diacetylmorphine were also much more likely to produce euphoria and other positive subjective effects when compared to these other opioids.
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