Heroin and Cocaine: Which Drug Is More Dangerous And What Are The Effects?

While heroin and cocaine are not the same thing, they are both very addictive and destructive. Which of these two drugs is more dangerous?

The Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, has a scheduling system to classify all drugs. The Schedule lists drugs on varying levels from one to five and includes everything from illicit street drugs to prescribed pharmaceuticals. The schedule is not as straightforward as to how dangerous a drug is though; instead, it reflects a more complex classification such as a drug’s medical value as well as its potential for abuse.

We’re going to be looking at two of the most well-known drugs on this schedule… heroin and cocaine. How they are manufactured and distributed, what the effects are and how dangerous they can be.

Heroin and cocaine have a few things in common. They are both illegal and incredibly addictive; they are widely used and often abused, and both have the capacity to destroy lives. However, there are also many differences between these two drugs and that’s what we’ll be looking into.


What is heroin really?


There are a lot of questions about heroin including, where does it come from, what is it made of & what does it look like? Some of the reasons that people have these questions is because they worry someone they know may be abusing this deadly drug. An opioid epidemic is gripping the US, and heroin is an opioid.

People often start with prescription opioids but they develop a tolerance to these drugs, which can quickly lead down the path of heroin use. Heroin was first manufactured in 1898 by the Bayer pharmaceutical company of Germany and marketed as a treatment for tuberculosis as well as a remedy for morphine addiction.

It was then, and still now, is made from the resin of poppy plants. It’s a thick milky liquid that is removed from the pod of the poppy flower by slicing the flower bulb. This sap is known as opium and it’s added to boiling water with lime. A film of white morphine forms at the top. This morphine is then reheated with ammonia before an additional stage involving more filtering and boiling until brown paste forms, which is left to dry in the sun. This is the raw morphine base for heroin but there are still a few more steps to get it to street grade.


Where does heroin come from?

Heroin producers in the world, by Cerveaugenie, under CC BY-SA 3.0

There are a few different routes that the heroin in the US arrives. As much as 90% of the opioids in the world originate from Afghanistan, but only around 4% of US heroin originates from there. So if not from Afghanistan, where is all the heroin coming from?

The 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment found that Mexican cartels expanded their market share in the US to nearly 80% in 2014. This pushed out South American and Southwest Asian producers and by 2015, 93% of the heroin the DEA seized and analyzed came from Mexico. Mexico’s poppy cultivation tripled between 2013 and 2016. In 2016, poppy cultivation reached 32,000 hectares in Mexico. That’s enough to produce 81 metric tons of heroin.

How does heroin look like?


Pure heroin is a white bitter powder and this is the stuff that usually comes from South America. It is most often found in the areas east of the Mississippi River. The black tar heroin is usually produced in Mexico and sold in markets to the west of the Mississippi. The reason for the dark coloring is the result of the crude processing that happens in Mexico, leaving impurities in the drug.


What about cocaine, what is it?


So what about cocaine, or coke as it’s commonly referred to. It was big in the 1980’s, but it’s still heavily used and America remains the largest consumer of the drug. According to a 2015 article in The Washington Post, 1 in 20 American adults ages 18 to 25 used the drug in 2015.

Pablo Escobar is a name we all associate with cocaine and he has been the inspiration behind many film and TV series about the vast amounts of cocaine that come out of Columbia. But things have changed since the 1980’s with the cocaine trade spreading to other countries.

Where does cocaine come from today?

Worlds main cocaine trafficking flows from 2012 – 2016, UNODC – UN World Drug Report 2016

Colombia is one place but the other Andean nations of Peru and Bolivia, are also now huge producers. Vast amounts of cocaine come from South America because of the abundance of coca plants that grow in the mountains and jungle areas.


How do heroin and cocaine make you feel, and how do they differ?


When someone takes a hit of heroin, it triggers a rush of dopamine in the brain, creating intense feelings of pleasure. This also comes with flushing of the skin, a feeling of heaviness, and a dry mouth. Less pleasurable feelings include extreme itching and vomiting. After the initial rush, a user will enter a period of drowsiness for a few hours, their breathing will slow, and their eyes may close, as they fall into a dreamy state.


Cocaine hit is quite different. The cocaine high involves an intense pleasure called euphoria. The drug stimulates the brain in the same way that a real achievement might do, like winning a college football game. This feeling is the main reason people who get addicted want to get high on cocaine again and again.

But each high requires a little more of the drug to get the same effect. Users also often feel superior to other people and so the effect of the cocaine high can have a particular appeal to people with low self-esteem, or who are in situations where a greater level of confidence is desirable, such as performers. And talking of performers, there have been scores of famous addicts over the years.


Known celebrities, that died due to drugs

Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain, by Julie Kramer, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Many were musicians and few lived to tell the tale. Kurt Cobain, former frontman of Nirvana, killed himself in 1994 at the age of 27. While heroin didn’t kill Cobain, during the last years of his life he was as famous for his abuse of drugs as he was for his huge hit Smells Like Teen Spirit. In his suicide note, Cobain claimed that one of the motivations behind him using heroin was to deal with the “uncomfortable stomach condition” that doctors had not been able to diagnose.

Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix, by A. Vente, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Another famous musician who used drugs was guitarist Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix was known for using many other drugs including LSD, marijuana, and amphetamines. He was arrested in 1969 for possession of heroin, but he was acquitted of those charges after testifying that the drugs were planted in his belongings. He died in 1970 of a drug overdose.

Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston, by PH2 Mark Kettenhofen, Public domain

Cocaine use has been just as prevalent with the rich and famous but deaths are less common from cocaine use alone. In 2012, Whitney Houston was found submerged in a filled bathtub at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles. According to the autopsy report, she died of a combination of a possible heart attack and cocaine use.


Robin Williams

Robin Williams, by Eva Rinaldi, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

And then in August 2014 the world was shocked when comedian Robin Williams hanged himself in his California home. There has been much debate around the reasons for William’s death and though most relate it to his ongoing battle with depression.

His widow Susan told people magazine it was a debilitating brain disease called diffuse Lewy body dementia or dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) that took hold of Williams and probably led him to suicide. Whether depression or brain disease, Robin Williams was known to have a long standing issue with both alcohol and cocaine.

How much does cocaine cost?


As they are on the black market drug prices are not affected by inflation, like the usual products we purchase. But supply and demand can still have an influence on the price. Tom Wainwright, the former Economist reporter in Mexico City and author of Narconomics, told Business Insider, “The price of cocaine in the United States has hardly moved. In the past couple of decades it’s been about $150 per pure gram, and that’s barely budged, so there’s a puzzle there.”.


Wainwright went on to explain that the static nature of cocaine prices can likely be explained by the hold cartels and other traffickers have over the cocaine market at its origins. They have the ability to dictate prices to producers.

What about heroin’s cost?


When it comes to heroin the price depends upon a number of different factors, such as the type of heroin, the quality and how much there is available. But the concern with heroin is that the average street price of a single dose of 0.1g can be as low as $15 to $20 in the US.

This can vary from state to state but someone with a full-blown heroin habit may pay between $150 and $200 per day in order to support his or her habit.


So what have we learned about heroin and cocaine?

There are a few things that are certain and common to both heroin and cocaine. They are widely available, they destroy lives and though both are illegal substances, but people continue to use them.

The war on drugs is a term that was popularized by the media shortly after a press conference given on June 18, 1971, by President Richard Nixon. There is much debate and disagreement today as to whether this war is having a positive effect. Only time will tell.

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