What it is

Opiates are a group of drugs known as ‘downers’ derived from the sticky resin of the opium poppy seedpod. Opiates include opium, heroin, morphine, methadone, codeine and pethidine.

The use of heroin is relatively low in New Zealand. Instead, much of New Zealand opiate use is derived from morphine sulphate tablets, methadone and other opioid pharmaceuticals.

Opiates are extremely addictive.

What it does

Opiates are depressants, which means they slow down the messages in the user's central nervous system. In medicine, they are used as powerful pain killers. Opiates such as heroin are converted in the brain into morphine producing a powerful and pleasurable warm ‘cotton wool’ effect. Users say that after a ‘hit’ of opiates, they feel a surge of euphoria, a warm feeling over their skin and their body feels heavy.

Myths and legends

If you don’t inject heroin you won’t become addicted

This is a myth - and a dangerous one at that. Opiates are highly addictive no matter how you take them.


The biggest risk to using opiates is overdose. Tolerance develops with regular use so a user needs more to get the same effect. Users who use intravenously are also at risk of catching infectious diseases, like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. 

Intravenous (IV) drug use poses risks to the user’s health, especially the risk of contracting infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and skin infections. Sharing needles or syringes is extremely risky because this is the way infection can be transmitted. Never share your injecting equipment. If you need clean needles, there are needle exchange centres in most major centres in New Zealand. Exchange centres are listed here. 

Opiates and heroin withdrawal

Opiates, including heroin, are highly addictive, so regular users who attempt to reduce or stop using will often experience symptoms of withdrawal. Symptoms vary from person to person but they can include:

  • cravings for the drug
  • yawning
  • loss of appetite, vomiting and diarrhoea
  • stomach and muscle cramps
  • irritability
  • depression
  • insomnia
  • agitation

These symptoms usually last several days to a week, though some symptoms like depression, insomnia and drug cravings can persist for months or even years.

It is important to remember that not everyone will experience these symptoms. If you are worried about reducing or stopping your opiate or heroin use, contact a health care professional. 

Reducing the harm

The New Zealand Drug Foundation’s message is clear: no drug use is the safest drug use. However, we know there will be occasions when people ignore warnings and use drugs in a dangerous manner. To help keep communities safe, here is some information about proven methods of drug harm reduction.

Intravenous drug use, where drugs are injected directly into a person’s veins, seriously increases the risk of infectious diseases, such as hepatitis and HIV, and skin infections. Always use clean needles obtained from a needle exchange service to minimise these risks.

Never share needles, syringes or other injecting equipment.

Unsanitary injecting environments also increase the risk of contracting infections. It is important that your hands and the site of injection are clean. This will help reduce the risk of infection.

Because of the high risk of overdose, it is important not to use opiates alone.

If you are using opiate drugs for the first time, or you have had a break from using, be aware that your tolerance for the drug will be low. Reduce your dose.

Always boil and filter your drugs. Because most opiates in New Zealand are impure, the level of contamination with other substances can be high. Using a filter reduces the risk of contamination.

For additional information