Most of us tend to use the words opioid, opiate, and narcotic interchangeably, but it turns out there’s a difference.

Opiates, sometimes called natural opioids, are natural substances that come from opium, which is extracted from the opium poppy. Some examples of these are morphine and codeine. Heroin, which is derived from morphine, is also an opiate. The first known use of the word opiates was in the 15th century. The poppy papaver somniferum is the source for all opiates. These are the same plants that produce poppy seeds, like those you’d find on bagels, breads, and other baked goods, and many people grow the flowers in their gardens. Technically, if Drug Enforcement Administration officers were feeling particularly bored, they could bust you for growing these, as The DEA includes opium poppy and opium straw (which means the opium plant, minus its seeds) on its list of Schedule II drugs. Schedule II drugs have a high potential for abuse, a currently accepted medical use, and abuse of the drug or may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.

Opioids bind to the same receptors as opiates but do not occur naturally. Synthetic opioids including fentanyl and methadone are chemically manufactured, while semi-synthetic opioids such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and hydromorphone are all hybrids resulting from chemical modifications to natural opiates. The word opioid didn’t come into use until the 1950s.

Legal opioids are generally prescribed as pain medications. Because of their potential for abuse and addiction, they are regulated by the Controlled Substances Act in the United States.

Most people have simply started using the word opioid rather than differentiating between the two, although some will use opiate to refer to natural substances.

Opioids are also classified as narcotics, although the word narcotic has fallen somewhat out of favor. The original medical definition referred to any psychoactive compound with sleep-inducing properties. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, it comes from the Greek word for “stupor” and originally referred to a variety of substances that dulled the senses and relieved pain.


Although opium, opium derivatives, and their semi-synthetic substitutes are all technically narcotics, the preferred term today is opioid. Heroin and pharmaceutical drugs like OxyContin, Vicodin, codeine, morphine, methadone, and fentanyl are all narcotics and opioids. Narcotics/opioids give users a general sense of well-being, reducing tension, anxiety, and aggression. They are highly addictive, and there is a serious risk of psychological dependence. After the physical cravings pass, users will still be unable to stop thinking about using opioids. Relapse on these drugs is extremely common.

Narcotics/opioids do have some legitimate medical purposes, and they are prescribed by doctors to treat pain, suppress cough, cure diarrhea, and put people to sleep.

If you or a loved one need help with quitting drugs or alcohol, consider Asana Recovery. We offer medical detox, along with both residential and outpatient programs, and you’ll be supervised by a highly trained staff of medical professionals, counselors, and therapists. Call us any time at (949) 438-4504 to get started.