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Biology 202, Spring 2005
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Heroin Addiction, the I-function and Free Will

Beverly Burgess

The I-function is believed to be a collection of neurons within the brain that houses an individual’s sense of consciousness and acts a reference point for self identity. It is thought to be a separate “box” contained within the nervous system that maintains a high level of autonomy from the ever-present myriad of chemical and electrical inputs and outputs occurring in the outlying regions of the system. As manifested in day- to- day behavior the I-function can be seen in the voluntary actions of an individual as he/she encounters the world: any choice that is made can be related back to the I-function and the execution of a choice under the influence of the I-function can be referred to as free will. How does this concept of free will hold up in the case of heroin addiction? Based on the fact that heroin mimics a naturally existing chemical in the brain that controls mood, it would appear that the I-function is at all times under the influence of those chemicals via the nervous system. From this it can be concluded that the concept of free will is difficult to support.

From Poppy Seed to Heroin

It is a picturesque sunny day in April in the small village of Essazai Kili, Afghanistan. Two small children carelessly wander about in a large, brilliant swatch of color created by a crop of pink, purple and white flowers. In a few weeks, the lovely petals of these flowers will fall to the ground leaving behind poppy capsules and the harvesting of the crop will begin. A farmer will repeatedly score the capsules to release an opaque, milky substance which he will allow to dry before scraping it off. The process will be repeated until the capsules no longer secrete the fluid, otherwise known as raw opium (6),(8). To this impoverished village farmer, and many others like him throughout the Middle East, South East Asia and Central/South America, the tedious and unusual harvesting of poppy fields is comparable to harvesting fields of gold.

Half a world away, somewhere in North America, a young man sits alone and engages in a dangerous ritual. He mixes a white powdered substance called heroin with water and heats it in a spoon over an open candle flame. His eyes glisten as the powder dissolves and he transfers the now clear liquid into a hypodermic needle. He searches his needle pricked forearms for a viable vein, injects the fluid and an instant euphoria, or rush, courses through his body. The rush is short-lived, but it is soon replaced with a warm, drowsy sensation that can be likened to a sense of well being (5). To his heroin laden nervous system, like the nervous systems of many heroin users around the world, he gains the sensation that all is well in the world.

The Evolution of Opium

The euphoric and narcotic effects of opium have been well-known throughout history dating as far back as 3400 BC in Mesopotamia. Until the 1800’s the drug was primarily ingested via smoking, eating, drinking or in pill form for both medicinal and recreational purposes (8). In 1803, a young German chemist by the name of Friedrich Serturner managed to successfully isolate the active component in opium: morphine was born. Eventually marketed by Georg Merck, morphine became a very popular drug for the relief of pain during the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War. By this time the administration of the drug was enhanced by the invention of the hypodermic needle which allowed for more accurate dosage and more expedient delivery, as the drug could now be released directly into the bloodstream (2).

In 1895 diacetylmorphine, or heroin, was synthesized from morphine by Heinrich Dreser, a chemist at The Bayer Company, Germany. The drug was touted as a cough syrup in the wake of a rash of pneumonia and tuberculosis infections, while also serving as an alternative to morphine due to its efficacy in the rapid alleviation of pain. Heroin soon became the drug of choice over morphine as it was believed to diminish morphine addiction, which by the 1900’s had become an obvious issue, especially in the United States (2). Eventually both morphine and heroin were found to be highly addictive and became controlled substances, with heroin’s status falling into the category of an illicit narcotic.

Despite its now illegal status, worldwide heroin demand is far from disappearing. Today, the farmers in Afghanistan with their vibrant poppy fields are more than willing to meet that demand as approximately half of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product is tied to their production of opium and heroin (3). The U.S. Department of State recently reported: “In [2004], the amount of land [in Afghanistan] planted in poppies skyrocketed 239 percent to 509,035 acres. Production of opium gum…was 17 times greater than in the next-largest producing country, Burma. Afghanistan's illicit opium/heroin production can be viewed…as the rough equivalent of world illicit heroin production (1).”

Heroin in the Nervous System

Although heroin use is mainly associated with the homeless or people of a lower social status, it is widely observed across all walks of life. Media sources around the world recognize the commonplace use of heroin as demonstrated here by an excerpt from one of England’s local newspapers:

“EVERY day at 11am 'David' joins the smokers gathered outside his city centre workplace as they meet for their midmorning fag break. Lighting up a Marlboro he has been given by a colleague because he never has his own, David fits in perfectly with all the other smokers as they puff away while discussing the latest office gossip. But, as his work-mates return to their desks, David heads towards a car parked in a nearby side street. The car window rolls down and he is handed a small package in exchange for a 10 pound note. 'At this point I'm buzzing,' admits David, 'because I know I've got my hands on the thing that will get me through the day.' The 'thing' David has got his hands on is a wrap of heroin. His smart business suit and executive job may not be what most people expect of a heroin addict but that is exactly what David is. He says: 'People look at me and all they see is a high-flyer. I've got a well paid job, a high profile in the business community and no-one at work has got a clue what I get up to. But if they saw the state of my arms they would know straight away that I am an addict (2).'”

What is it about heroin that makes it possible for David to get through the day? Exactly how does this chemical substance produce the sensation that most of us would automatically correlate with success: a feeling of relaxation, security and wellbeing?

Heroin belongs to a class of drugs known as opiates. Its magical effects are felt upon entry into the bloodstream as it depresses the central nervous system via the brain. The morphine component of the drug is recognized by receptor sites in the brain as being chemically similar to a naturally existing class of chemicals known as endorphins. Endorphins are our natural pain killers and mood lifters that normally come into play when we experience pain or participate in exercise. In the case of pain management, they act in an analgesic fashion to inhibit neurons from firing. A side effect of the pain relief induced by endorphins is a feeling of euphoria and well being (8). The introduction of heroin into the nervous system allows for immediate access to these sensations. According to Karl Sporer, MD, “Heroin is more soluble [than morphine and other opiates] in the fat cells so it crosses the blood-brain barrier within 15-20 seconds, rapidly achieving a high level in the brain and central nervous system, which accounts for both the 'rush' experienced by users and the toxicity (9). ”

The toxicity that Dr. Sporer refers to can be observed during the initial introduction of heroin into the nervous system of a virgin user as it produces many undesirable side effects such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. With repeated use, these symptoms lessen significantly, only to return when the nervous system detects a drop in the level of the drug, a phenomenon known as withdrawal. Additional symptoms of withdrawal include watery eyes, stomach and leg cramps, vomiting and a general malaise, somewhat similar the discomforts experienced with influenza. At this point the user is considered to be addicted and in order to avoid withdrawal symptoms he/she must administer the drug every 4 " 6 hours depending on the purity of the heroin and other physiological factors. Deprivation of the drug beyond this point typically results in a marked increase in the severity and duration of withdrawal symptoms (5), (7). An addicted user will make considerable sacrifices to obtain the drug, often resulting in a lifestyle that is solely dedicated to its pursuit, regardless of the risks or consequences.

Some of the risks are associated with the level of heroin purity. Current refining techniques of heroin are capable of producing a product that is 99% pure, but in an effort to increase profits, drug dealers may significantly compromise the purity to as low as 3% by adding fillers such as caffeine, powdered milk, and quinine (7). Although some fillers are relatively harmless, quinine can cause severe vascular damage, respiratory complications, coma and death. In an effort to obtain the most desirable result, heroin users may increase the amount of product that they use either, to overcome the dilution factor or to surmount the tolerance barrier created in the nervous system as a result of prolonged use. In the event that a user actually obtains a highly pure batch of heroin, the risk of overdose becomes a strong possibility. The result is often coma or death. As the addiction becomes more pervasive, the user’s approach to obtaining and administering the drug may become more reckless and include behaviors such as sharing needles indiscriminately, thereby increasing the risk of contracting diseases such as hepatitis and HIV.

Heroin addiction, the I-function and free will

A heroin addict feels that he is in control of his I- function during his heroin high, yet it becomes brutally obvious that his nervous system manages his I-function when he craves his next high or enters withdrawal. It may seem that a user’s I-function is initially in control when he decides to start using heroin, but it can never be fully known what or how all of the chemical interactions within the addict’s nervous system contributed to his first use of the drug. What can be observed is the subsequent control that heroin takes over a user’s I-function by its effect on his nervous system during his high and low periods. With all of the dangers associated with heroin use, one would assume that a user’s I- function would wake up, assess the risks, and cease to permit use of the drug if for no other reason than the sake of self preservation.

In the early days of the drugs licit use, patients consuming heroin were unaware of the drugs addictive affects and if one questioned a user at that time about their habit, it is likely they would emphatically declare that they were taking the drug of their own free will. Even David in the example above seems to have a sense of free choice with regards to his habit. Yet it is apparent from his continued use of this drug, despite its associated hazardous, that his I-function has been hijacked by a chemical invader.

The idea that free will does not exist produces a great amount of anxiety within cultures that have created laws in an effort to control behavior. One might argue that if there is no free will, then people cannot be held accountable for their actions. This is a poignant issue in societies that create moral philosophies about good versus evil and strive to hold its citizens accountable for their behavior through the establishment of laws. But how can we redefine behavior outside of these cultural boundaries? In the absence of the behavioral options created by laws, it would appear that free will fails to exist and we are only left with meaningless actions as they occur to us naturally via the nervous system. In the face of laws, we are presented with further influence upon our behavior reinforced by cultural expectations. But in choosing to abide by laws are we exercising our free will?

When we choose to deny an initial impulse, for which we cannot know the origin, in favor of an alternative behavior for which we may be rewarded, can we say that we are behaving freely? Can we say for certain why we prefer the reward? Society’s many systems of behavioral influence appear to deny our free will while simultaneously providing a sense of freedom: the freedom to deny the impulses created by our nervous system in favor of behaviors created by society in order that we may be accepted into a larger collective. But what exactly is it that makes us want to be a part of the collective in the first place? Those who modify their behavior to the societal norms are rewarded with acceptance by members of that society. Perhaps the external influence of acceptance triggers a biochemical release of some kind in our nervous system that makes us feel good. In keeping with that feeling we are likely to continue behaviors favored by society in an addictive fashion. From this it would appear that the cultural conformer, just like the heroin addict, knows how to get his ‘fix’. It appears that the I-function is unable to distinguish between constructive versus destructive behavior if the outcome of the actions is the same. For heroin users like David, perhaps his dependence on the natural high that comes from social acceptance was no longer sufficient to achieve a sense of well being and, given the opportunity, his nervous system influenced his I-function to find a solution in heroin.

Returning to the poppy fields in Afghanistan, we may look upon the flowers as inanimate life forms devoid of an I-function. From their place in the sun, they are merely slaves to the cycles of the seasons and the profit seeking will of the farmer. But like any good parasite, they silently wait for an opportunity to invade an unsuspecting host where they may assume residence and take control. These simple yet vibrant plants make their way through the manipulative hands of the farmers and chemists until they finally are able to infiltrate the nervous system and hijack the I- function and free will of millions of heroin users worldwide. Those of us without heroin to rob us of control over our I-function are still under the strong influence of our nervous system and its chemical components as well as innumerable external factors; therefore it appears that the I- function’s conveyance of free will ceases to truly exist.


1) Katel, P. “Exporting democracy.” The CQ Researcher Online 1 April 2005: 15, 269-292,

2) Scott, Ian. “A hundred-year habit. (Centenary of Bayer's chemical medicinal - heroin)” History Today June 1998: v48 n6 p6(3)

3) Starr, Frederick S. “Silk Road to Success.” The National Interest Winter 2004-05

4) Tony Barrett. “No-one knows I’m an Addict…” Liverpool Daily Echo 25 April 2005, first edition, features: pg.12, 13

5) Heroin, University of Washington website

From Flowers to Heroin, CIA website

7) Drugs in Sports: Recreational and Street Drugs " Heroin, NCAA website

8) The Opium Kings, PBS Frontline website

U.S. In The Midst Of A Heroin Epidemic, But Many Overdose Deaths Can Be Prevented, Science News Daily website

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