What Drugs Are Opioids?


Opiates, originally derived from the poppy plant, have been around for thousands of years. People use opiates for both recreational and medicinal purposes. Some opiates come from the raw, natural opium. While other opiates are manufactured to have the same chemical structure as the raw opium (opioids).

Opioids include a variety of drugs ranging from legal drugs such as fentanyl, codeine, and morphine to illegal drugs such as heroin. The one thing they all have in common is the ability to depress or slow down the body’s central nervous system.

There are three classifications of opioids. The first group is a naturally occurring opium derivative including morphine. The second group contains partially synthetic derivatives of morphine called opioid drugs such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, and oxymorphone. The third group contains synthetic compounds like Fentanyl, alfentanil, levorphanol, Meperidine, methadone, codeine, and Propoxyphene.

What are the most common abused opioids?

Opioids are the number one cause of drug overdoses in the US. The most commonly abused opioids includes those that are prescribed to patients and found just on the streets. They are as follows:

  • Vicodin: Also known by the generic name hydrocodone/acetaminophen, it is prescribed to treat severe pain, often following surgery or an injury. Unfortunately, this drug is the most abused of all prescription drugs in the country.
  • Heroin: Heroin is an illegal, synthesized form of morphine. It can be injected, smoked, snorted, or swallowed. Heroin is particularly dangerous when used or combined with other substances.
  • Morphine: Morphine is a painkiller extracted from poppy plants. It’s often used in medical settings and given orally or intravenously. Unfortunately, this drug is highly addictive, even for those who start out with using it to treat pain after surgery.
  • Codeine: Codeine is chemically similar to morphine. Codeine is also one of the most commonly abused opiates. This drug is often used to relieve pain.
  • Fentanyl: Fentanyl becomes increasingly abused over recent years, and is now represented as one of the most abused opioids. Fentanyl is a narcotic that acts quickly as a sedative. 
  • Hydrocodone: Hydrocodone is an opiate that is used as both a pain reliever and cough suppressant. When sued in excess, this drug may become addictive

Natural Opioid Drugs

Natural opioids, as their name implies, come from a natural source known as the opium poppy plant. While some opioid drugs are completely manmade and manufactured in a lab, natural opiates come directly from this plant and the milk that comes from its seedpods. Though they are often thought to be less harmful than synthetics, they can still become addictive and cause dangerous respiratory depression.

Throughout history, opium was used as an anesthetic and remedy for nervous disorders, cancers, and migraines, among other conditions. Morphine, prescribed as a pain reliever, is a natural opiate, but is frequently used to illegally to get high.

Synthetic Opioids

Much like opium, synthetic opiates act on the same areas of the brain as opium and produce many of the same effects. Synthetic opiates are man-made, and offer treatment therapies for opiate addiction. They are created using chemicals not found in the poppy plant or from morphine or opium. The actual chemicals used vary from drug to drug and chemist to chemist.

Semisynthetic Opioids

Heroin, the most abused opiate drug, is a semisynthetic opiate derived from morphine. Drugs like heroin and OxyContin are often included with opiates. Although, they are actually considered semisynthetic opioids because they are derived from other naturally occurring opiates.

Semisynthetic opiates, developed as a safer alternative, have most of the same side effects as other opioid medications. Both synthetic and natural opium alkaloids are involved in the production of semisynthetic opiates.

Some of the Most Common Opioids Include:


According to statistics compiled by the Foundation for a Drug Free World, more than 13 million people worldwide use opium. Opium has the appearance of black or brown tar and commonly smoked by the individual. Made from the white liquid found in poppy plants, opium is one of the most expensive opiates in the world and is attractive to many addicts drawn to the powerful nature of the drug.


One of the most dangerous drugs in the world, heroin claims countless lives each year. Heroin can be snorted, smoked, or injected. While all three methods are dangerous, injection is by far the most dangerous, as individuals who share dirty needles with other users after injecting heroin are at a high risk for contracting HIV/AIDS or Hepatitis.

Many people abusing heroin do not realize it is an opiate. Processed from morphine, this street drug has taken many lives over the years.


Sometimes referred to as “Hillbilly Heroin”, OxyContin has proven to be a problem for addiction treatment professionals and emergency room workers alike. OxyContin is a prescription painkiller like Vicodin, but the drug is a time-release medication –designed to distribute its active ingredients over time. Problems arise when individuals begin snorting or injecting the addictive drug, allowing them to inject all of the opiates at once – thus putting themselves at risk for overdose and illness. 


This opiate is known as a narcotic analgesic. It can be successfully used to relieve pain. Hydrocodone is a prescription drug that is sold as Vicodin, Lorcet, Lortab and other name brand prescription painkillers.

An opiate drug, hydrocodone is highly addictive. While not everyone with a hydrocodone prescription will develop hydrocodone addiction, most will become physically dependent on the drug. This prescription drug is used to treat pain, but has also become popular on the street.


According to the World Health Organization, Codeine is the most widely and commonly used opiate in the world. It is usually administered orally and has a reputation of being the safest of all the opioid analgesics.

However, this can be misleading since many individuals become physically dependent on the drug after extended and repeated use. The most common medical use of Codeine is used to suppress chronic coughing. Almost all cough syrups in the United States that require a prescription contain Codeine.


The most active substance in opium is morphine—named after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. Morphine is a very powerful painkiller, but it is also very addictive. Morphine is prescribed by doctors for the treatment of serious pain. Unfortunately, many people have come to abuse this drug illegally, as they enjoy the effects it has on their body.


Methadone has been growing in popularity since the 1940’s, at which time it was synthesized from methadone due to a morphine shortage. It may not share the same chemical characteristics as heroin and morphine, but the end result is oftentimes the same. In today’s world, methadone is commonly used for the treatment of a narcotic addiction, however, many people become addicted to this drug due to the way it makes them feel.

For more information on drug abuse and treatment options contact Casa Palmera. Call 888-481-4481 to speak with a medical professional.


Related Content:

  1. Opiate Withdrawal Timeline: What to Expect

  2. Opiate Rehab and Recovery: What to Expect

  3. Opiate Treatment Programs



This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.