What Are Opiates?

Opiates are drugs used to treat pain derived from the opium plant. These substances are highly addictive and carry a high risk for opiate addiction (including opioid addiction) for anyone who takes them for a prolonged period, even if they are used as prescribed.

The Sumerians first cultivated the opium poppy plant, or Papaver somniferum, in 3,400 B.C. They referred to it as the “joy plant,” and the wonder drug was soon passed around the world as merchants learned of its multiple uses. Opium was not only used to relieve pain, but it was also used to induce sleep and relieve bowel issues. Opiates are also frequently used to treat coughs.

Opium byproducts have been used for medical purposes for many years. These ingredients occur naturally in the sap of the opium poppy. Natural derivatives of the opium poppy plant are called opiates. Opiates can be further manipulated synthetically. Such man-made opiates are called opioids. Collectively, these opiate and opioid derivatives of the poppy plant include morphinecodeine, oxycodone and heroin, among other opioid drugs.

While there is no major difference in the effectiveness of the drugs, opioids are synthetic or partly synthetic drugs that act similarly to opiates. With opioids, the active ingredients are synthesized by chemical processes. However, because they are similar in how they affect the body and brain, the terms opiate and opioid are often used interchangeably.

For almost as long as opiates have existed, they have been used for both medicinal and recreational (i.e., to get high) purposes. Opiates exist on the drug market in a few different forms: as prescription pharmaceuticals (morphine, codeine, methadone, etc.), and illicit street drugs (heroin, opium, etc).

All of these drugs can be abused, potentially leading to opiate addiction (opioid addiction), even if they are prescription medications. People frequently refer to opioids using slang words and phrases to evade police attention. Some of the street names for a variety of opiates and opioids include:

  • H
  • Hammer
  • Skag
  • Gear
  • Smack
  • Horse
  • Elephant
  • Rock
  • Nose drops
  • Black tar
  • China white
  • White
  • Chinese H
  • White dynamite
  • Dragon
Opiate pain medications are prescribed mainly to treat moderate to severe pain. In most cases, opiates are prescribed following surgery or a medical procedure. Common legal opiate drugs include:

  • Morphine is a highly addictive, naturally occurring substance found in the opium plant
  • Meperidine, similar to morphine, is a synthetic prescription medicatio
  • Codeine, a less powerful but still addictive substance, is primarily used as a cough suppressant. Codeine is typically prescribed as a combination medication.
  • Hydrocodone is a semi-synthetic opioid. It’s the most frequently prescribed opiate medication on the market and is included in drugs like Lortab and Vicodin.
  • Oxycodone is another semi-synthetic opioid. Common brand names are Percocet (a combination drug containing oxycodone) and Oxycontin.
  • Fentanyl is a highly addictive opiate that is produced synthetically, so it is known as a synthetic opioid analgesic. Fentanyl is commonly prescribed as a transdermal patch.

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