Thirty-five renal biopsies were performed on heroin abusers at our institution between January 1977 and June 1983 as part of the evaluation of unexplained heavy proteinuria. Twenty-eight patients (80%) had histopathologic diagnoses of either focal segmental glomerulosclerosis or renal amyloidosis. Patients having a diagnosis of renal amyloidosis were older (P = 0.025), had a longer history of heroin abuse (P = 0.05), and 13/14 demonstrated clear evidence of chronic subcutaneous suppurative lesions. The remaining seven patients demonstrated a spectrum of disease similar to that seen in the nonaddicted population. We compared the clinical and biopsy characteristics of patients evaluated between 1977 and 1980 with those seen between 1981 and 1983. The relative incidences of renal amyloidosis and focal glomerulosclerosis changed significantly (P = 0.025). Whereas 29% of patients in the early series had renal amyloidosis and 57% had focal glomerulosclerosis, the relative incidences in the later series were 48% and 29%, respectively. The development of renal amyloidosis in our patients appears to be related to a longer duration of heroin abuse with increased incidence of subcutaneous injection of the narcotic. Chronic, suppurative skin ulcerations tend to occur at the site of injection, resulting in a persistent acute-phase inflammatory state important for the initiation and potentiation of secondary amyloidosis.