“Narcotic” is a term derived from the Greek word for stupor. It originally referred to a variety of substances that relieved pain and dulled the senses. Now, the term is used in a number of ways. Some people define narcotics as substances that bind at opiate receptors (cellular membrane proteins activated by substances like heroin or morphine) while others refer to any illicit substance as a narcotic. From a legal perspective, narcotic refers to opium, opium derivatives, and their semi-synthetic substitutes. Cocaine and coca leaves, which are also classified as "narcotics" in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), neither bind opiate receptors nor produce morphine-like effects, and are discussed in the section on stimulant abuuse. In this discussion, the term “narcotic” refers to drugs that produce morphine-like effects.
Narcotics are administered in a variety of ways and are used therapeutically to treat pain, suppress cough, alleviate diarrhea, and induce anesthesia. They can be taken orally, injected, transdermally (skin patches) or in suppository form. When narcotics are abused, they are often smoked, sniffed, or injected. Drug effects greatly depend on the dose, way they are administered, and previous exposure to the drug. Besides being used for medical purposes, narcotics produce a general feeling of well-being by reducing anxiety, tension and aggression. While these effects can be helpful in a therapeutic setting, they can also contribute to narcotic abuse.
On the downside, use of narcotics is associated with a variety of unwanted effects including drowsiness, apathy, inability to concentrate, lessened physical activity, constriction of the pupils, dilation of the subcutaneous blood vessels causing flushing of the face and neck, constipation, nausea and vomiting, and most significantly, can make it difficult to breathe.
There are many risks associated with the use of illicit drugs including infection, disease, and overdose. While pharmaceutical products have a recognized concentration and purity, illegally produced street drugs have unknown chemical make-ups. Narcotic abusers commonly have trouble due to the impurities found in street drugs and in the non-sterile practices of injecting. Skin, lung, and brain abscesses, hepatitis, and AIDS are common among narcotic abusers. Since there is no simple way to determine the purity of a drug that is sold on the street, the effects of illicit narcotic use are unpredictable and can be fatal. Physical signs of narcotic overdose include constricted (pinpoint) pupils, cold clammy skin, confusion, convulsions, severe drowsiness, and slow or troubled breathing.
Tolerance and dependence develop with repeated use of narcotics. “Tolerance” can be defined as a shortened length of time and a lessened ability to handle pain, euphoria, and sedation, which creates the need to consume much larger doses to attain the desired effect. The tolerance level doesn’t develop equally to all aspects of these drugs, which can increase a number of toxic effects. Although tolerant users can consume larger doses, physical dependence refers to a change of normal body functions that makes it necessary to have a continued presence of a drug in order to prevent a withdrawal or abstinence syndrome. The intensity and character of the physical symptoms experienced during withdrawal are directly related to the particular drug of abuse, the total daily dose, the interval between doses, the duration of use, and the health and personality of the user. In general, shorter acting narcotics tend to produce shorter; more intense withdrawal symptoms, while longer acting narcotics produce a withdrawal syndrome that is prolonged, but tends to be less severe. Although unpleasant, withdrawal from narcotics is rarely life threatening. When one becones addicted drug detox and drug rehab may be necessary.
Withdrawal symptoms associated with heroin and/or morphine addiction are usually experienced shortly before the time of the next scheduled dose. Early symptoms include watery eyes, runny nose, yawning, and sweating. Restlessness, irritability, loss of appetite, nausea, tremors, and drug craving appear as the syndrome progresses. Severe depression and vomiting are common. Heart rate and blood pressure are elevated. Chills alternating with flushing and excessive sweating are also typical symptoms. Pains in the bones, back muscles and extremities occur, as well as muscle spasms. At any point during this process, a suitable narcotic can be administered that will dramatically reverse the withdrawal symptoms. Without intervention, the syndrome will run its course, and within 7 to 10 days, most of the obvious physical symptoms will disappear.
The psychological dependence associated with narcotic addiction is complex and very long winded. After the physical need for the drug has passed, the addict may continue to think and talk about the use of drugs and feel strange or overwhelmed coping with daily activities without being under the influence of drugs for a long period of time. There is a high probability that relapse will occur after narcotic withdrawal when neither the physical environment nor the behavioral motivators that contributed to the abuse have been changed.
In the US, there are two major patterns of narcotic abuse or dependence. One involves individuals whose drug use was initiated for medical treatment who escalate their dose by obtaining the drug through fake prescriptions and "doctor shopping" or by branching out to illicit drugs. The other; more common, pattern of abuse starts with experimental or recreational use of narcotics. The majority of individuals in this category may abuse narcotics periodically for months or even years. Although they may not become addicts, the social, medical, and legal consequences of their behavior is very serious. Some experimental users will escalate their narcotic use and will eventually become dependent, both physically and psychologically. The younger a person is when they start using drugs, the more likely the drug use will progress to dependence and addiction.
Narcotics of Natural Origin
Papaver somniferum (the poppy) is the source for non-synthetic narcotics. It was cultivated in the Mediterranean region as early as 5000 B.C., and has since been grown in a number of countries throughout the world. There is a milky fluid that comes from the unripe seedpod of the poppy an has, since ancient times, been scraped by hand and air-dried to produce what is known as opium. A more recent method of harvesting is by the industrial poppy straw process of extracting alkaloids from the mature dried plant. The extract may be in liquid, solid, or powder form, although most poppy straw concentrate available commercially is a fine, brownish powder. More than 500 tons of opium (or its equivalent in poppy straw concentrate) are legally imported into the US on a yearly basis for legitimate medical use.
Synthetic narcotics are produced entirely within a laboratory and there is nothing natural about them. The continuing search for products that preserve the analgesic properties of morphine without the dangers of tolerance and dependence has yet to produce a product that is not vulnerable to abuse. A number of clandestinely produced drugs, as well as drugs that have accepted medical uses, fall within this category.