Drugs derived from the opium poppy are commonly used in medicine to manage pain and get people through surgery, along with other uses. However, they are also often used as recreational drugs because of the euphoric experience they can provide – a sense of wellbeing, elation, lowered inhibitions, and numbness to feelings of pain, trauma, or anxiety.
Nevertheless, these drugs are highly addictive and can be extremely dangerous to use. Opiates bind with receptors in the brain that interfere with natural brain chemistry, and continued use or abuse can result in tolerance, cravings, and a lack of control over use of the drug.
All opiate drugs have the potential for abuse and addiction. However, certain opiate drugs may be more addictive and dangerous for specific reasons. Some of the opiates that are most commonly seen in addiction and that present a real danger.
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These drugs, their popularity as recreational highs, and their risks are summarized below.
Heroin is one of the most commonly known and popular drugs of abuse.
A potent street drug, it is a natural opiate, derived from morphine made from the seed resin of the opium poppy. As described by Live Science, heroin provides the fastest-acting high of the various opiate drugs. It is extremely popular as a street drug because it is less expensive to obtain than prescription opiates that may be stronger or longer lasting.
The potent euphoria created by injecting, snorting, or smoking heroin makes the drug extremely addictive, which creates a risk of dangerous overdose. However, there is another aspect of heroin use that makes it potentially more dangerous than other types of opiates: the tendency to “cut” it, or add unknown substances or other drugs to it to make it more lucrative for the dealer.
Because of this, people who use heroin may be introducing substances into their bodies that can cause greater harm, also making it difficult for a doctor who is treating a heroin overdose to know whether or not other substances may be involved. This can result in serious complications and death. According to information provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, deaths attributable to heroin use increased by six times between 2001 and 2014 – from fewer than 2,000 to nearly 12,000 per year – and the numbers keep climbing.
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Misuse of prescription pain killers is also contributing to a high level of opiate overdose injury and death. One of the most popular prescription opiates for abuse is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that was originally developed to provide high-level pain control. According to NIDA, fentanyl is 50-100 times more potent than naturally derived morphine, and it was originally developed to help with severe post-surgical pain as well as pain that is resistant to other opiates.
Because of this potency, fentanyl quickly became a popular drug of abuse, with people getting fraudulent prescriptions and even stealing from pharmacies to get or distribute the drug, according to the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). However, this very potency is what makes it one of the most dangerous opiate drugs. As with most opiates, fentanyl is highly addictive and can quickly lead to overdose. In fact, heroin users who switch to fentanyl are at high risk for overdose because of its strength.
Fentanyl is also often crossed with other drugs – a process called lacing – to enhance its euphoric effects. Mixtures include cocaine, marijuana, and even other opiates. Some people have even laced fentanyl with heroin, leading swiftly to overdose. These drug combinations are extremely toxic to the body and can easily lead to death.
Vicodin and Percocet
Vicodin is a mixture of hydrocodone, a potent opiate, and acetaminophen, a mild, nonsteroidal analgesic. According to the DEA, hydrocodone is the most commonly prescribed opiate drug in the US, and it is also the most abused prescription opiate in the country. Percocet is similar – combining opiate oxycodone with acetaminophen. In both cases, the analgesic supports and enhances the effects of the stronger painkiller, a semisynthetic opiate drug.
Addiction to these substances most often starts with legitimate use of the drug through a prescription. However, as explained by Healthline, long-term use of the drug can lead to tolerance, meaning that the drug’s effects become less apparent over time. This can lead the person taking it to misuse the drug, using higher or more frequent doses in order to achieve the same painkilling effects. This abuse can often spiral into physical dependence and then addiction.
Because they are so commonly used, these drugs can be very dangerous and lead to overdose by people who may not entirely be aware that they are addicted. For this reason, prescription practices for these drugs should be carefully monitored, as should any long-term prescriptions of the drug.
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OxyContin is a form of oxycodone that has gained some notoriety as a “date rape” drug, as evidenced through a newspaper article from The Free Library. It is also known as providing a heroin-like high that lasts longer than the street drug’s quick, intense high.
For these reasons, OxyContin is not only dangerous for people who are knowingly taking it; it also poses a risk for people to whom it may be given as an intentional form of attack. Depending on the amount administered, it can lead to an overdose in people who are given the drug without their knowledge. Otherwise, like the other opiates listed here, it is highly addictive and dangerous to use repeatedly.
While opium in its original, pure, latex form is not used as much anymore, it has a history as an extremely destructive recreational drug. Today, some people try turning to refined opium because of a mistaken belief that a “natural” or minimally processed drug is not going to be as harmful as a synthetic or more highly processed one. For that reason, some incorrectly believe that opium can be trusted more than tainted drugs like heroin or human-made drugs like fentanyl.
This belief that a drug is less harmful because it comes from nature is common, but dangerous. The fact is that opium is extremely potent in its own right, and it can result in the same potential for overdose and other physical problems as any other opiate drug.
Getting Help for Opiate Abuse
Opiate drugs like heroin and prescription painkillers are contributing to what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other organizations are referring to as an “epidemic” of opiate abuse and addiction. The risk is not one to be taken lightly. As evidenced above, these drugs can be highly dangerous and lead to a lifetime of mental issues, illness, and death.
In order to avoid this, people who are struggling with addiction or abuse of opiate drugs can get help through reputable, research-based treatment programs that provide the medical and psychological support needed to detox, control cravings, and abstain from continued opiate use.