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What are Opiates?

Opiates are made from the opium poppy. Drugs similar to opium are called opioids; these substances are created by chemists. Common types of opiates or opioids are heroin, morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone. All of the drugs listed above except for heroin, are considered medicine and used to treat and relieve pain. These medications are prescribed by doctors to help patients with their pain; when taken properly and as instructed most individuals do not have problems taking opiate medications. However, when a person consumes more of the medication than prescribed, uses it to "get high", takes it for longer than instructed or in ways other than the medication should be used (smoking it, snorting it, injecting it, etc.) they are much more likely to develop opiate abuse and addiction problems.

Heroin is one of the most potent and well known illegal opiates commonly abused. This drug is a semi-synthetic opiate derived from morphine. Morphine is made from opium. This drug originates from opium poppies grown primarily in three geographic regions: Southwest Asia, Southeast Asia and Latin America. There is also a region known as the "Golden Crescent". This region encompasses Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. The Golden Crescent represents more than 80% of the world's opium production.

Heroin is usually a white or brown powder, but it can also resemble black tar. In addition to variations in color, heroin comes in several different physical states, heat stability, water solubility, levels of purity and "cuts" (meaning the different adulterants the drug is mixed with). Most heroin sold and bought on the street is cut with another substance. Common adulterants include quinine, sugar, caffeine, flour, powdered milk, or starch. Depending on its form, heroin can be smoked, snorted, or injected. People abuse heroin because of the pleasurable sensation it brings. When it is consumed, heroin causes a "rush", followed by a warm flushing of the skin, dry mouth, and a heavy feeling in the user's extremities.

Brown heroin is created during the first stage of purification. This form of the drug is easier to create than white heroin and burns at lower temperatures than other forms of heroin; meaning it is easer for users to smoke brown heroin as opposed to white heroin.

White heroin is the most refined form of the drug on the market. The drug has gone through a purification process involving ether and hydrochloric acid, a very dangerous procedure. Interestingly, "white heroin" is not always white in color; it can be pink, beige, brownish or off-white depending on the chemicals used to create it. White heroin is a pure, water-soluble salt form of the drug and it is usually used intravenously.

Black tar heroin usually originates in Mexico and is a dark, sticky resinous substance. The appearance of the drug is the result of incomplete acetylation of morphine. This form of heroin is typically cheaper and faster to create than either brown or white heroin. Statistics show that the actual percentage of heroin in black tar heroin is often very low.

This form of the drug can be abused in a number of ways including:

  • grinding it into powder than blending it with lactose to create a fine powder to be snorted
  • vaporizing (also known as chasing the dragon) is a method of heating the drug on a piece of foil with a lighter underneath, the user inhales the vapor created through a straw or similar piece of paraphernalia
  • make a suppository of the drug

Opium is considered the crudest and least potent form of all the opiates. This drug is created from the milky fluid found in the un-ripened seed of the poppy. When the substance is hits the air, it turns black and hardens. Once this takes place, the drug is usually smoked, and can be eaten too. Opium is abused for the short-term high it produces that includes relaxation, pain relief, reduced anxiety in addition to impaired alertness and coordination.

Morphine is another well known opiate. This drug is found both illegally and legally. Legal forms of morphine are manufactured as either a white.brown powder or in pills. When prescribed, the powdered form of this drug is injected before a major surgery or medical procedure. In cases of severe and chronic pain, the pill form of morphine is at times prescribed. When this drug is created illegally, it is often in its powdered form and abused by smoking, injecting or snorting it. This drug is abused because it decreases pain sensations and the user's emotional response to pain.

A majority of the morphine in the U.S., more than 90%, is transformed into codeine. This medication is widely prescribed for the treatment of mild to moderate severe pain, as well as a serious cough syrup. Warning labels on this medication clearly state that this narcotic can cause addiction, overdose or death. It is critical that just the individual with the prescription take the medication and consume it only as directed by their doctor. This drug is abused by users because it creates an overall sense of calm and feeling of pleasure.

Hydrocodone is an opiate derived also from thebaine. Often prescribed by medical professionals for pain relief, in recent years this medication has been marketed in combination with other substances as an advanced prescription cough suppressant; available in tablets, capsules and syrups. A therapeutic dose of hydrocodone is 5 to 10 mg, the pharmacologically equivalent to 60 mg of oral morphine. This drug is widely abused for the high it causes and the mild sense of euphoria it can create.

Hydromorphone is derived from thebaine and is a semi-synthetic opiate. This drug is two to eight times more potent than morphine. It is produced in injectable forms and tablet form. This medication is often very popular among addicts - to be used instead of heroin. Addicts will write fraudulent prescriptions to obtain the drug as well as steal from friends, family and pharmacies to get their supply.

Over the past decade oxycodone abuse has escalated. This drug is marketed under numerous brand names including OxyContin, Percocet and Tylox. Derived from thebaine, oxycodone is a semi-synthetic opiate. The drug is more potent than but similar to codeine, with a higher potential for abuse and addiction problems. This oral prescription drug is an effective way to relieve serious and/or chronic pain. When abused, addicts take the medication orally or, choose to inject the "active" drug into their veins. This drug is abused for the feelings of euphoria it creates in the user as well as a way to self-medicate feelings and avoid emotional and/or physical pain.

Statistics on opiate abuse and addiction show that between 26.4 million and 36 million people abuse opioids worldwide. In the U.S., an estimated 2.1 million people deal with substance abuse disorders due to prescription opioid medications in 2012, and an estimated 467,000 individuals were addicted to heroin. The number of prescriptions for opioids (such as hydrocodone and oxycodone products) have increased from around 76 million in 1991 to approximately 207 million in 2013, with the United States being the greatest consumer of these medications globally. America accounts for almost 100% of the world total for hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin) and 81% for oxycodone (e.g., Percocet) consumption. With an increase in the number of opiate related deaths each year, the United States must institute more thorough prescribing practices as well as increase the public's awareness on how addictive opiate and opioid medications are to the consumer.