Are Opiates Illegal?

Are Opiates Illegal?

Many opiates used to control severe pain are legal although they are highly addictive and controlled by the U.S. government

Not all opiates are illegal although all of them are federally controlled. Opiates, or opioids, are powerful painkillers with strong addictive potential making it necessary to use them with extreme caution.

Forms of Opiates

Opiates come in natural, semi-synthetic and synthetic forms. The oldest opiate is opium, which is made from the milky fluid that leaks from cuts on the unripe seedpod of the opium poppy plant. It is air dried and commonly sold as a fine, brownish powder. While the term opiates is widely used, many scientific and government groups now use the term opioids according to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Drugs of Abuse resource guide. Following are the various forms of opioids:

  • Natural opioids – Opium is primarily made of morphine, which is used medically to treat pain. Heroin is another form of opium and is the fastest acting form of the drug and the most addictive. It also is made from morphine and is illegal.
  • Semi-synthetic opioids – These are made from naturally occurring opium products and other chemicals. For example, the painkiller hydromorphone is two to eight times as powerful as morphine but lasts for a shorter time and is a stronger sedative. Other semi-synthetic forms include oxycodone and hydrocodone.
  • Synthetic opioids – These are made entirely in a lab and include meperidine, fentanyl and methadone. Methadone, for example, is a manmade opioid used to treat opioid addiction. It is considered an opioid agonist because it enters the brain at a slower rate than other opioids and is less likely to cause addiction

Opiates and the DEA

Opioids are controlled by the DEA using guidelines from medical and scientific sources compiled by the Health and Human Services (HHS) department. While all opioid forms are controlled, legal forms of the drug are available by prescription. Depending on the chemical formula of an opioid, the drug may be stronger or weaker leading to its place on the DEA drug schedule. A form of opioid is on all of the DEA’s five schedules. All of the drugs on the list are considered risky for some type of abuse and include the following:

  • Schedule I – Schedule I drugs include drugs with no acceptable medical use in the U.S. and drugs with a high potential for abuse. Heroin is a schedule I drug.
  • Schedule II – Schedule II drugs include drugs with a high potential for abuse that also have currently acceptable medical use. Morphine, methadone and hydrocodone are schedule II drugs.
  • Schedule III – Schedule III drugs include drugs with acceptable medical use that are considered less addictive than schedules I and II. Hydrocodone is a schedule III drug.
  • Schedule IV – Schedule IV drugs are even less likely to be abused than schedule III drugs and are acceptable for medical use. Tramadol is a schedule IV drug.
  • Schedule V – Schedule V drugs have a low likelihood of abuse compared to other drugs and include cough medicines made with codeine.

Ongoing worries about the high numbers of people abusing prescription painkillers prompted recent changes to the DEA schedules. More than 60 drugs containing hydrocodone are now under stricter rules. As part of the change, physicians can no longer call in a hydrocodone combination product prescription or fax it to a pharmacy, and automatic refills are not allowed. A person must take the original prescription to a pharmacy to have it filled.

Roughly 7 million Americans over age 12 report some form of prescription drug abuse according to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Of the group, the majority of abuse happens with pain relievers with around 4.9 million people reporting problems.

Opiates and the Global Market

In other countries, especially countries in the midst of constant wars, governments have trouble controlling illegal opioids like heroin. The United Nations’ 2014 World Drug Report notes that terrorist groups use illegal drug trafficking as a way to raise money. Afghanistan, for example, has extensive opium poppy fields, and opiate use in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan is among the highest in the world.

The widespread availability of heroin and other opiates in unstable countries makes it easier for criminal organizations to bring the drugs to other countries. While heroin is illegal in the United States, more people are turning to the drug as a cheaper alternative to opioid prescription drugs according to the NSDUH. Many people believe the high numbers of people currently abusing prescription painkillers could shift to heroin as government efforts make the drugs harder to get on the black market.

Need Help Finding Addiction Treatment?

Addiction is a brain disease with physical and behavioral components. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction to opium type drugs, there are many effective treatment options that offer healthy ways to cope with the disease. Do not let an addiction keep you from a healthy and fulfilling life. Our admissions coordinators are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to offer options for effective treatment.

New research shows addiction is a highly treatable disease despite the old ideas people may have about it. People who seek help learn skills that improve day-to-day life and enrich their relationships. Call us today at our toll-free helpline, and start on the path to a better life.