Renal biopsies of 23 heroin addicts who presented with the nephrotic syndrome were examined by light and electron microscopy. The majority of patients (14) showed focal segmental glomerular sclerosis on light microscopy, four patients showed "minimal change", and two were classified as "focal global sclerosis." In one case focal mesangial proliferation was the outstanding feature; one patient had diabetic glomerulosclerosis; and one had mesangiocapillary glomerulonephritis and dysproteinemia. Visceral epithelial swelling and proliferation were present in 14 patients on light on light microscopy. Electron microscopy showed distinct podocyte changes consisting of loss of foot processes, vacuolization, and cytoplasmic degeneration; focal separation of podocytes from basement membranes was found in 11 of 18 cases. In some instances a few electron-dense deposits were present in the mesangium. Membranous nephropathy was not encountered, although it occurs in 30 to 40% of unselected adult nephrotic individuals. Of 15 patients followed for 2 months to 5 years, one died of heroin overdose, eight went into renal failure, two improved, and four continued to have proteinuria. It is concluded that nephrotic syndrome of heroin addicts is most often associated with focal segmental glomerular sclerosis and occasionally with minimal change disease or focal global sclerosis. Conceivably these three conditions represent different phases of one disease process, although different reactions to heroin or its various vehicles and contaminants cannot be excluded. The morphologic resemblance to experimental aminonucleoside and N,N'-diacetylbenzidine-induced nephrosis suggests a possible toxic origin.