November 21, 2023 By: Erendira Zazueta, Coalition Coordinator
Opioids are used to reduce pain. They can be prescribed but they also can be bought on the street. There are three types of opioids; natural, synthetic, and semi-synthetic which is a mix of both. We are in an epidemic of opioid overdoses which is why it is important to know about them. In 2021, 75% of nearly 107,000 drug overdose deaths in 2021 involved an opioid. Certain opioids are more potent than others which is why they have a higher probability of causing an overdose or being abused. While natural and synthetic are similar in effects, they are still different and have different potencies.
Natural opioids are derived from the resin of the opium poppy plant. You’ll sometimes hear the word opiate which sounds like opioids but there is a difference. Opiates are natural opioids like heroin, morphine, and codeine whereas opioids can refer to either the natural or synthetic ones. Putting the word natural can be misleading because it can make it seem like one form of opioid is safer and healthier than another but that is not true. Opiates can still be harmful. People can still abuse opiates and they can overdose on opiates, even the opiates with prescriptions. Just because it comes from a plant does not mean it is a safer alternative.
There are some semi-synthetic opioids but that just means that they are a mix of the natural but include some lab-made chemicals as well. Examples of semi-synthetic opioids are oxycodone and hydrocodone. These medications can be prescribed for pain relief.
Synthetic opioids are lab-made and have no natural component. An example of a synthetic opioid is methadone. Methadone is used for people who are trying to recover from addiction or opioid abuse. It has a medical use, but it can still be abused, which is why it is used under monitoring and evaluation in some recovery clinics. The other example of a synthetic opioid is the most common street opioid known as Fentanyl. Fentanyl is lab-made and approximately 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin. The chemicals target the brain to produce pain relief effects just like natural opioids. It is highly addictive, and a small amount can cause an overdose. This is why there are many efforts to prevent overdoses and bring awareness, so people don’t consume it.
A lot of drugs that are bought on the street are synthetic as well and they mix in fentanyl because they make them in labs. Street drug dealers can sell lookalike Xanax, Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, and others. While some claim they have a “prescription” for them it is most likely not true if they constantly have pain pills for sale. Beware of buying any type of prescription drug from a street dealer because you could just be buying a synthetic pill, and it can also be laced with a fatal amount of fentanyl or unregulated amounts of other substances. Prescription pills are measured in an amount that is fit for the person taking them, so buying prescription pills from the street is very unsafe.
It can be difficult to tell the difference between a real and fake pill which is why it is best to never try any opioid unless you are prescribed one for your pain by your doctor. Even if you are prescribed any opiate or opioid, be sure to follow the directions on the bottle and take as instructed, monitor your symptoms, and follow up with your doctor. While fentanyl is a synthetic pill and there is a big epidemic of fentanyl overdoses, it is important to know that doctors can still prescribe fentanyl in hospitals or other medical settings. If you find yourself in a situation where a doctor will be giving you fentanyl in a medical setting, be sure to ask questions and monitor your symptoms to clear up any doubts.
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1. DEA (2020). Synthetic Opioids. Accessed on November 21, 2023. https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2020-06/Synthetic%20Opioids-2020.pdf
2. LiverTox: Clinical and Research Information on Drug-Induced Liver Injury [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; 2012–. Opioids. 2020 Nov 24. PMID: 31643200. Accessed on November 21, 2023. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31643200/#:~:text=The%20opioids%20are%20a%20large,and%20include%20morphine%20and%20codeine.
1. NPR (2019). The Opium Cycle. Woods D. Accessed on November 21, 2023. https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2019/11/05/776212608/the-opium-cycle
2. Texas Tribune (2023). Lawmakers’ Attempts to Tighten Drug Laws Could Saddle Crime Labs With an Unsustainable Workload. Simpson S. Accessed on November 21, 2023. https://www.texastribune.org/2023/04/12/texas-drugs-crime-evidence/