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Identifying heroin isn’t always a clear-cut endeavor. While many drugs have a distinct smell that can identify them, the purest heroin forms typically have no smell at all. But cheaper types of heroin like brown heroin or black tar heroin, which are often cut (or combined) with other substances, often take on a white vinegar smell.
Black tar heroin, in particular, is one of the cheapest varieties because it’s generally only about 25% pure. The rest of it is an adulterated concoction of toxic chemicals or filler substances to keep the costs down for drug dealers while maintaining its psychoactive abilities. As these adulterated combinations synthesize with heroin into a new compound, they typically release that distinct vinegar smell. This smell is typically strongest in black tar heroin.
However, because any number of toxins and fillers can be cut with heroin, smells may vary. A 2016 study in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs revealed that heroin may have a range of smells that could vary by its geographic origin. People described the smell of heroin differently on the east and west coasts. Users on the east coast said heroin smelled like cat urine, chemicals, cat litter or opium, while west coast users described a very thick type of black heroin as smelling like chocolate.
Heroin smells may also differ based on how a user takes it, whether in powder or liquid form. Smoked heroin may have a different smell altogether, which can dissipate within minutes, leaving little trace of an after-odor. The smell of smoked heroin has been described as anything from burned BBQ sauce; sweet coffee; burned Band-Aids; burned brown sugar; and sweet licorice.
Adding other substances to heroin is a common and dangerous practice that increases the dangers of heroin use. Because heroin users can never be sure just how much of the drug is actually used in these mixtures, overdose is always a very real possibility. But many of the substances that heroin is often cut with can be even more dangerous than the drug itself, together creating a very deadly concoction. Some of these chemicals can also affect what heroin smells like, or neutralize any odor altogether.