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Black Tar Heroin

Black tar heroin is a dangerous opioid, cheaper and less pure than a typical batch of powdered heroin. It is addictive and has significant abuse potential. Its use can potentially lead to a life-threatening overdose and other health complications. Treatment options are available for those struggling with abuse.

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What Is Black Tar Heroin?

Black tar heroin is a form of heroin that is similar in appearance and texture to black, sticky tar. It is a street opioid processed from morphine and extracted from certain poppy plants, with no accepted medical purpose. It is often smoked or snorted, but it can also be injected. 

Black tar heroin is considered to have significant abuse and addiction potential. It is a contributor to America’s opioid abuse epidemic (although our modern epidemic is primarily fueled by synthetic opioids, notably fentanyl). 

Black tar heroin has a variety of street names, often referencing its characteristic color. Some street names for it include black tar and negra.

Key Facts About Black Tar Heroin

Key Facts

  • The drug is made from morphine, which comes from opium poppy plants that grow in Southeast and Southwest Asia, Mexico, and Columbia. Black tar heroin in the United States tends to come from South America.
  • In 2020, nearly 13,000 people died from a drug overdose involving heroin.
  • Nearly 20 percent of opioid deaths involve heroin in some form.
  • Black tar heroin tends to be cheaper and less pure than a typical dose of powdered heroin.

How Is It Used?

Black tar heroin can be frozen to harden it and then crushed into a powder and snorted. 

Other users heat the drug, often over aluminum foil, and inhale the wisps of smoke that rise from the burning heroin through a straw or similar device. This is where the term “chasing the dragon” seems to originate

How Does Black Tar Heroin Make You Feel?

People typically use black tar heroin and similar opioids, at least initially, for the intense rush of euphoria that they can cause. In the short term, heroin specifically is also associated with the following effects:

  • Clouded mental functioning
  • Dry mouth
  • Fading between consciousness and unconsciousness
  • Heavy feeling in the arms and legs
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Severe itching
  • Warm flushing of the skin

Heroin is associated with heroin addiction, with people who regularly use it also developing a tolerance to the drug, needing more heroin to achieve the same effect. Many regular users of heroin develop what is called physical dependence on the drug, where suddenly stopping can cause withdrawal symptoms. These withdrawal symptoms are often described as “flu-like” and include the following:

  • Cold flashes with goosebumps
  • Diarrhea and vomiting
  • Restlessness
  • Severe muscle and bone pain
  • Sleep problems
  • Uncontrollable leg movements
  • Potentially severe drug cravings

Signs of an Overdose

Heavy use of black tar heroin, or any other opioid, has the potential to cause a life-threatening overdose. This is typically due to the drug causing a dangerous level of respiratory depression. 

The risk of a life-threatening overdose can increase significantly with polydrug use, where a user mixes heroin use with other types of substance use, such as drinking alcohol.

Some common signs of a heroin overdose include the following:

  • Being awake but struggling or being unable to speak
  • Limp body
  • Slow, superficial, or unpredictable breathing
  • Choking or gurgling sounds
  • Pale or clammy facial skin
  • Blue or purple lips or fingernails
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Slow or unpredictable heartbeat (or no heartbeat)
  • Unresponsive to outside stimulus
  • Vomiting

For lighter skinned people, the asphyxiation associated with severe respiratory depression can cause their skin tone to turn bluish purple, especially around the lips and extremities. For darker skinned people, it instead tends to turn grayish or ashen. 

If a person who has been using heroin seems to be sleeping, you should regularly check on them to make sure they are breathing and otherwise aren’t showing any signs of an overdose. 

Note that an opioid overdose, or even suspecting one, always warrants calling 911. You should not wait for the situation to become definitively life-threatening before calling. If a person shows any troubling signs of an overdose, and even if they exhibit worrying symptoms not described above, you should always call 911 if there is any concern they have taken too much heroin or any other opioid.

In the event of an opioid overdose, the drug naloxone should be administered, if available, to the person overdosing. Naloxone can rapidly reverse the effects of opioids and save someone who is having a life-threatening opioid overdose. 

Other Dangers

People high on heroin will typically have their judgment impaired. They may be at greater risk for engaging in unsafe behavior, such as having unprotected sex or sharing equipment like needles with strangers, which can massively increase a person’s risk of contracting infectious diseases, including HIV.

In the long term, heroin can cause a number of negative health effects. Repeated use of heroin has been associated with the following:

  • Long-term imbalances in humans’ neuronal and hormonal systems
  • Deterioration of the brain’s white matter, which can affect decision-making, behavior regulation, and the ability to respond to stress appropriately
  • A higher chance of developing a physical dependence on the drug
  • A higher chance of developing an addiction to the drug
  • A higher chance of experiencing a life-threatening overdose

Difference Between Black Tar Heroin & Powdered Heroin

While powdered heroin should not be considered safe, as it remains an addictive opioid with no accepted medical use, powdered heroin tends to be more refined than black tar heroin, with fewer impurities. 

Black tar heroin is a cheap form of heroin, marketed to people who are lower income or who otherwise may be addicted to heroin but cannot afford or are for some reason unable to acquire powdered heroin. This increases the risk of serious health complications resulting from its use, as impurities can make the drug’s effects less predictable and increase the risk of it being contaminated in some potentially life-threatening way.

Addiction Treatment Options

Quitting any kind of opioid once you’re addicted can be difficult. Fortunately, this is an area that is well studied, with a number of evidence-based treatments available that have proven helpful in helping people recover from addiction to drugs like black tar heroin. Typically, the best way to start getting treated is to talk to an addiction treatment professional who can help you identify the approaches that best suit your needs. 

Medication-Assisted Treatment

One early choice that you will make (which can potentially be changed later) is whether you will opt for medication-assisted treatment (MAT). This is considered the gold standard in treatment for an opioid use disorder (opioid addiction).   Some medications, notably buprenorphine and methadone, can be used as part of MAT. They help to suppress your opioid cravings and withdrawal symptoms when taken on a schedule, and they allow you to stop abusing heroin or other opioids. 

While some call this “trading one addiction for another,” the evidence doesn’t support this stance. These treatments have been shown repeatedly to be helpful in allowing people who are addicted to opioids to regain control over their drug use. They can then live healthier, more fulfilling lives with a lowered rate of relapse back into drug abuse.

Outpatient Treatment

Most patients benefit from outpatient treatment where they only spend some of their week getting treated for addiction. They then return home to carry on with the rest of their life and sleep. 

Outpatient treatment offers medical supervision as well as therapy. Therapy approaches will be tailored to individual needs. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the main therapies used to treat addiction.

Inpatient Treatment

Occasionally, patients in crisis or those who have been unsuccessful in outpatient treatment may benefit more from inpatient treatment for heroin. This is a more intense form of treatment where a person stays for several weeks at a treatment facility. 

While it can be expensive, this 24/7 care can help some people recover in a safe, drug-free environment. They learn important skills and make enough treatment progress that they can have a much better chance of sustaining recovery after leaving and continuing in a more traditional treatment program.

While many people hope to be “cured” by their addiction treatment, it’s important to understand this isn’t typically how experts would word the goal. There is no cure for addiction. It is a chronic disorder that must be managed on an ongoing basis. 

Instead, the goal is to build up an individual, so they can experience drug cravings less frequently and know how to respond to cravings when they do occur in healthier ways, continuing to avoid drug use even if they still sometimes think about it. 

Ongoing support is an important part of this process. Many people in recovery, even after years of abstinence, still benefit greatly from attending group meetings with other people in recovery and seeing a mental health professional regularly. 

Profile image for Dr. Alison Tarlow
Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated March 19, 2024
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