What Is Black Tar Heroin? What It Looks Like & How It's Made

What Is Black Tar Heroin?

Black tar heroin is one form of the illicit street drug heroin and is named for its appearance. In addition to looking like sticky dark tar, it can also come in a solid form that resembles charcoal or even be red or brown.

Heroin is derived from morphine, and morphine from opium. Opium is harvested from the seed pods of the opium poppy.

The drug heroin is also an opioid, a broader classification of drugs that includes naturally derived opiates and synthetic drugs such as oxycodone and codeine. This classification also includes fentanyl, an especially potent opioid.

They’re all very effective at killing pain, but also can be highly addictive and even deadly. Heroin can be cheaper and easier to obtain than similar drugs, especially in wake of the opioid epidemic and crackdowns on prescribing other opioids. Because of its addictiveness, heroin is a schedule 1 drug, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

One alarming side effect of heroin addiction is that heroin-linked overdose deaths have been climbing in recent years. 28% of all opioid overdose deaths in 2019 involved heroin and from 2018 to 2019, the heroin-involved overdose death rate decreased by over 6%.

How Is Black Tar Heroin Made?

In the eastern United States, heroin is most commonly sold in a powder form, usually white or off-white. A whiter appearance usually means more of the purities have been removed. (Though it also means it may be “cut” with other substances, anything from sugar to quinine.)

The process to make black tar heroin requires less complicated lab equipment, so it results in a more crude and less purified drug — a “semi-processed opium base,” said Sam Quinones in Dreamland — but also a very potent one. It also tends to be cheaper than other forms of heroin.

Black tar heroin tends to be sold more in the western U.S., the majority of it coming from Mexico, but some also trickle in from Asia and South America. Most of what’s on the U.S. market is Mexican black tar heroin.

Most often it’s smoked or melted down so it can be injected.

Black Tar Heroin’s Effects

When people use heroin, they typically feel a surge of euphoria followed by a warm feeling. Other side effects, such as dry mouth, heavy limbs, itching, nausea, and drifting between sleep and wakefulness tend to follow use.

Black tar heroin carries some unique risks. In particular, users may develop infections such as tetanus, skin and soft tissue infections such as necrotizing fasciitis, and wound botulism.

In the end of 2019, several people in the San Diego area died from myonecrosis, a bacterial infection that was linked to black tar heroin use. Myonecrosis causes pain and swelling around injection sites. It can spread into muscles, leading to sepsis, organ failure, and eventually death.

A case of wound botulism also tied to black tar heroin use was confirmed in the same period. Users of black tar heroin are more likely to develop these types of conditions.

Almost curiously, those who inject black tar heroin seem less likely to contract HIV. This could be because to inject it, it must first be heated, thereby killing the HIV virus. Also, because black tar heroin tends to gum up syringes, they need to be rinsed more frequently and disposed of more quickly, potentially resulting in less contact with infected blood.

That’s not to say it’s a good alternative for regular heroin. Using it can lead to vein sclerosis (hardening), so users may resort to injecting black tar heroin under the skin. That could lead to risks of necrosis and botulism and other complications.

No matter what form is used, heroin still carries many risks. Long-term risks include:

  • Infection of the heart valves (endocarditis)
  • Mental health problems, including depression or anxiety
  • Liver and kidney disease
  • Constipation and/or cramping

In addition, heroin abuse can cause sexual problems. Men may experience the inability to achieve or sustain an erection. Women’s menstrual cycles may be altered as well.

Signs of Overdose

Opioids reduce respiration and heart rates. As a result, using too much puts one at risk of a coma or death. Signs of overdose include:

  • Breathing or heartbeat slowing or stopping
  • Lips and fingernails taking on a bluish cast
  • Skin growing cold, damp, and pale
  • Users vomiting or choking
  • Body shaking, convulsing, growing limp, or becoming unconscious

If a person is overdosing, or is even suspected of overdosing, it’s best to call 911 without delay. If naloxone (Narcan) is available, that may be administered. It can reverse the effects of an overdose.

The reversal may be only temporary, however, and more doses and monitoring may be needed, so it’s still best to contact 911.

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Life After Heroin

Choosing to get clean or to enter recovery is a huge decision. Heroin addiction may seem like an impossible hurdle to overcome, but it can be done.

Many effective treatments and therapies are available to help. Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) — which incorporates prescribed medical treatments (such as methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone) — pairs well with psychological therapies that address reasons for use and help people develop drug-free coping strategies.


  • justice.gov – Heroin Fast Facts
  • teens.drugabuse.gov – Prescription Pain Medications (Opioids)
  • dea.gov – Drug Scheduling
  • cdc.gov – Opioid Overdose – Heroin
  • drugabuse.gov – Research Report Series: Heroi
  • iprc.iu.edu – Types of Heroin
  • amazon.com – Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic
  • wsj.com – The Great Opiate Boom
  • drugabuse.gov – What Is Heroin and How Is It Used?
  • drugabuse.gov – What Are the Immediate (Short-Term) Effects of Heroin Use?
  • ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – The Textures of Heroin: User Perspectives on “Black Tar” and Powder Heroin in Two U.S. Cities
  • usatoday.com – Flesh-Eating Bacteria Tied to Black Tar Heroin Use Kills 7 in San Diego, Health Officials Say
  • cdc.gov – Botulism: People Who Inject Drugs
  • cdc.gov – Wound Botulism Outbreak Among Persons Who Use Black Tar Heroin – San Diego County, California – 2017-2018
  • ucsf.edu – Black Tar Heroin Use Explains Lower HIV Levels Among Injection Drug Users in the Western U.S.
  • teens.drugabuse.gov – Heroin

Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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