There are many slang names for drugs that exist in modern vernacular, and heroin is no exception.
Originally invented as a medical painkiller, heroin’s name is actually a trade name, given to the drug because of its heroic potential for safely relieving pain. The original goal in creating it was to produce something that could relieve pain without causing addiction. The hope was that it could replace morphine, which was habit-forming. Heroin was mass produced for the first time in 1898 by the Bayer Corporation, a legitimate pharmaceutical company. Initially, it was seen as a miracle drug, surpassing other substances like codeine in the treatment of some illnesses. However, it soon became clear that it was not a panacea. Like morphine, people can develop a tolerance for it, and then move on to habitual use.
Today, people often use heroin recreationally in the United States as a street drug. Over the years, heroin has picked up a number of colorful street names like “skag,” “horse,” and “dead on arrival.” There is also an assortment of slang terms for people who use the drug and the devices they use with it.
The Beginning of Heroin
By 1910, users of morphine had discovered that heroin produced a feeling of happiness and comfort. This was particularly true when they injected it. Many early users called heroin “dope.” This term seems to come from a Dutch word referring to a thick and sticky sauce. Opium users started using this term before heroin was invented. Eventually, the word “dope” came to be used for a number of drugs. In addition to opium and heroin, it can be used to refer to substances like cocaine and marijuana.
In the early 20th century, heroin use spread quickly. It was a worldwide phenomenon, and the U.S. was hit as hard as everywhere else. Eventually, governments needed to step in and to regulate its production and distribution. In the 1920s, people who used this highly addictive substance came to be known as “junkies.” “Black tar” was a common street name in some places. By 1931, heroin use was going into decline, but it never really left society. Use ebbed and flowed with time as fads changed and new drugs became available. Along the way, heroin and its use picked up various euphemisms and street names. The language around this substance has evolved with just about every generation.
By the 1930s and 1940s, “smack” was a common street term for heroin. This comes from a Yiddish word meaning “a sniff.” Heroin was a big part of the jazz scene in communities like Harlem in New York City. On the East Coast, the drug was most commonly found in a white powder form that could be snorted. On the West Coast, it was typically a sticky substance called “black tar heroin.”
An Enduring Problem
By the 1950s, heroin was a fad within the artistic community. It was strongly associated with the Beat movement. William S. Burroughs, for example, was a longtime user of heroin. At the time, most of the substance was coming into the U.S. through foreign gangs. The Sicilian mafia, for example, was involved in distribution throughout country.
In the 1970s, the availability of heroin in Vietnam led to a serious problem with use among members of the U.S. Armed Forces. In 1971, a congressman from Connecticut conducted research into the issue. His final report indicated that between 10% and 15% of soldiers were using it. This alarmed the Nixon Administration, and the president’s team made combating the use of heroin a focus of U.S. drug policy. With stricter rules in place, smuggling drugs into the country next became a problem. Heroin use disorder came back to the United States with some veterans, and many of them continued to use this drug once they were home.
Heroin is often cut with adulterating agents, which means that users often get an impure dose. However, in the 1980s, what was being sold on the streets became purer and more dangerous. At the time, heroin was seen as less of a problem than some other drugs. For example, crack was widely viewed as the most dangerous drug of that era due to the rapid spread of its use in cities across the country.
By the 2000s, heroin became popular as a substitute for people who had become accustomed to prescription opioid medications. The drug has continued to be a huge problem in cities and rural areas for over a decade. Today, this drug is a big contributor to the scope of substance use disorders in the U.S. today.
Where Street Names for Heroin Come From
Slang names for heroin have evolved through all of these decades of use. There are dozens of common nicknames for heroin. Some are simple, like “H,” which comes from the name itself. Others have more complex derivations. The origins of these names are diverse. Some are based on the trade name whereas others come from what heroin does in the body or what it looks like. In addition, names can obscure the fact that people are talking about heroin; they’re designed to not have an obvious connection to the substance so the words can be used in everyday conversation.
Some of the terms for heroin based on the word “heroin” include “hero,” “horse,” “big H,” and “good H.” Street names also sometimes derive from personal names, some of which start with the letter H. These include “Charlie,” “Aunt Hazel,” “Charlie Horse,” “George Smack,” and “Harry.” Some names are based on mythical creatures or some kind of magic. “Dragon,” “Aries,” “witch,” and “Hercules” are examples of this. “Chasing the dragon” is a term that refers to the smoking of heroin, and was first used in Shanghai in the early 20th century. Since then, it has spread around the world. Today, it’s used in the U.S. and Australia, among other countries.
Sometimes, users or dealers need to talk about the substance but don’t want others to know what they mean. In those cases, terms unrelated to the actual name are used. These include “flea powder,” “tootsie roll,” “A-bomb,” “antifreeze,” and “butter.” At one point, “skag” and “smack” may have been used this way. Today, those expressions are widely recognized as meaning heroin. Using terms like these is common for people who want to hide their use from non-users. This could mean using them around family members, co-workers, and potentially even law enforcement.
How Heroin Is Used and Names
A person can snort, smoke, or inject heroin. Sometimes, the way that people use heroin or the way it is packaged can influence the way it is talked about. People who inject the drug also come up with names for the tools they use to do that. Often, they call their injecting paraphernalia their “kit.” Injecting requires something to liquefy it in addition to a syringe and a tourniquet. Tourniquets are usually referred to as “ties.”
Injecting can be done a number of ways. The most dangerous way to inject is directly into a vein. This is what many users call “mainlining.” It allows the substance to hit the bloodstream immediately. People who use this method need to be very careful to hit a vein and not an artery. A needle into an artery can cause gushing, which is frothy-looking blood to back up into the syringe. Some people also inject into a muscle or under the skin. These are safer options than mainlining.
In addition to names for heroin and ways to use it, there’s a lot of slang around the way people can sell and package it. A dose of powdered heroin wrapped in foil is often called a “bundle.” If someone purchases heroin that is impure or fake, he or she may call it a “bad bundle.” When people buy larger quantities, they may call it a “big bag,” “brick gum,” “blue hero,” or “burrito.”
Arts, Music, Culture, and Heroin
Heroin has deep roots within the artistic community. Writers like William S. Burroughs and Harris Wittels infamously struggled with the substance, along with musicians like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Today, there are actually guides published to let people know what drugs are called at different music festivals. Such documents make it clear that slang words for heroin closely relate to the artistic community and the audience for it.
This drug is a prominent figure in the lyrical content of many songs, too. The Velvet Underground famously released a song called “Heroin.” It talks about the gear used to shoot up, and it references names for the drug like “smack.” Defunkt referenced heroin use in some of its songs, and the group became a big influence on the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Anthony Kiedis, frontman for RHCP, has dealt with substance use disorder related to heroin. In some of his songs, he speaks about the drug, too. Although many of these musicians are seeking to speak about the problems the drug has caused in their lives, some people criticize these allusions as glamorizing its use.
Know the Names, Know the Signs
Understanding what people call heroin can sometimes help families and friends identify whether someone is using. Knowledge, after all, is power. When people are struggling with substance use disorder, they may start to withdraw from their usual social circles. They might also have more money problems. They may be high-functioning, but over time, as their addiction worsens, it will become more noticable.
If substance users are injecting drugs like heroin, they may change their behaviors. For example, they might take steps like wearing long sleeves all the time, even in warm weather. A person’s friend group may also start to change when he or she starts to use heroin because he or she may want to spend more time with other users. Sometimes they can manage for a time as high-functioning.
If you notice changes like these in a family member or friend, you might suspect that the person is developing a substance use disorder or addiction. It’s important to talk to this individual about his or her habits without being confrontational. The more you understand about your loved one’s drug usage, the better you’ll be able to encourage him or her to seek addiction treatment.
Getting Heroin Addiction Treatment
If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use disorder, there is help available. At Granite Recovery Centers, we offer a client-centered treatment program with options including a 12-step program and medication-assisted treatment. We base it all on what the client needs, and not a specific philosophy.
We also have protocols for specific populations. For example, our women’s-specific treatment program addresses challenges that women commonly face in recovery. We also offer a program tailored to people like police officers, soldiers, firefighters and medics who are exposed to high levels of stress on the job. Uniformed professionals often struggle with work-related PTSD, so it makes sense to incorporate treatment for that condition into their recovery programs.
Whether you struggle with heroin use or you have a loved one with an addiction, know that you are not alone. Granite Recovery Centers is here to help, so contact a member of our team today.