Origins of Opiates

Opiates are medications that are derived from opium. Humans have been using opium for centuries as both a painkiller and a recreational drug. However, opiates are a more modern invention. While individual opiates may vary in how they affect the body, the overall impact is similar. All opiates are classed as narcotics.

They can be helpful if used as directed by a physician but can be very dangerous if abused. Unfortunately, because of how easily the body builds tolerance for the drug, addiction is a risk that all individuals who take this class of drugs must be aware of.

The name “Opiate” tells of the relation the drug has to the opium poppy. They shouldn’t be confused with opioids, even though they act similarly and show the same signs of addiction and dependency.

Both of these classes of drugs create chemicals in the brain that produces an overall good feeling as a side effect of their use for stopping pain.

Unfortunately, this good feeling is the primary reason people become addicted to the substance. Addiction and abuse can be more dangerous than just causing someone to be shunned by society. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH) notes that between 4% and 6% of people who misuse prescription drugs transition into heroin use. Heroin is one of the most common opiates available, and it’s quickly produced in labs.

Because it’s such an easy drug to make, many cartels have opted to rely on it for income when producing other drugs becomes too difficult or dangerous.

The widespread use of opiates is partially a result of misunderstanding the impact of the substance. Even though it can be abused, this class of drugs helps treat acute pain.

The Federal Government has listed opiates as a controlled substance, but that doesn’t stop drug dealers and addicted persons from seeking it out. Unfortunately, many people who have become addicted to this substance were initially prescribed it by a doctor.

The rise of readily available versions of this drug on the black market helps support the habit, even if patients can’t get prescriptions from doctors. Before we can deal with overcoming opioid addiction, one must first understand where this substance comes from.

what are opiates

Origins of Opiates

While modern iterations of opiates are relatively recent, the use of the precursor to these drugs, the opium poppy, can be traced back to ancient times. Opium is the basis from which these drugs come.

The opium poppy is a plant that produces a milky sap that has painkilling properties. Originally a product of Mesopotamia around 3400 BC, opium has grown and evolved with society. The ancient Greeks knew about the properties of the opium poppy and used it successfully for years as a painkiller. Records show that the plant has also been used in Ancient Egypt and parts of the Middle East.

China adopted opium as a recreational drug around the sixth or seventh century AD, and it’s here that the substance gets its first use as something other than a painkiller. It was such a powerful part of Chinese society that it led to several wars being fought. Eventually, the Chinese empire capitulated to the British after the Second Opium War in 1860, which was fought with trade in the drug being a major factor.

When Chinese immigrants started to make their way to the west in search of a better life, they took with them the opium poppy and the habit of smoking.

Opium dens began to show up all over the world, from California to London. Because of the impacts of opium on society, scientists took notice of the poppy sap’s analgesic properties.

The very first commercially used opiate was morphine, isolated from opium in 1803. During the US Civil War, morphine was used as a painkiller, but the fallout was that almost half a million American troops ended up addicted to the opiate. The crackdown on opiates truly started in the early 20th century.

Two acts, namely the Opium Exclusion Act and the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, were responsible for laying the groundwork for controlling the spread of opiates. The importation of opium for smoking was limited, and the only people who were allowed to dispense opiates legally were certified doctors or pharmacists. Even then, the medical community had reservations about prescribing opiates to people because of how addictive they were.

In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a sharp rise in opiate addiction. New painkillers entered the market using opiates as their active ingredient. Heroin smuggling became rampant as more individuals coming back from Vietnam were addicted to the substance, giving smugglers a ready market to exploit.

The 80s saw physicians and pharmacists avoiding opiates at all costs. However, this changed in the 90s and 2000s as drug companies pushed for more acceptance and widespread distribution of synthetic opioids. The result is a massive epidemic of opiate and opioid addiction that has cast a shadow over the entire industry.

opium poppy plant

The Illicit Opiate Epidemic

No discussion of opiates would be complete without mentioning the current opiate epidemic. Today, millions of Americans suffer from addiction through no fault of their own. They are simply the victims of marketing and a lack of understanding from those in authority.

The roots of the illicit opiate epidemic stem from the opioid crisis of the 90s, as mentioned above. Opiates were already known and distrusted by doctors because of their penchant for getting patients hooked on the substance. Thanks to a well-grounded fear, physicians tapered (or sometimes refused) to prescribe opiates to their patients. However, change was on the horizon.

Drug companies started to produce synthetic and semi-synthetic opioids that they claimed were “safe” compared to opiates. It turned out that they weren’t, and many who were prescribed these painkillers (such as Oxycodone) in the 90s later developed an addiction.

When the news broke about the opioids, many doctors refused to write new prescriptions for their patients. As a result, many of these individuals started seeking a similar feeling in the underground world of illegal drugs.

Minority populations had already suffered at the hands of heroin in the 60s and 70s, but this new crop of users was more well-off and situated in “respectable” neighborhoods. Drug dealers realized that they could capitalize on this market and started selling heroin and other opiates to suburban homemakers who were addicted to their pain medication.

Unfortunately, as in many of these situations, greed takes over. Dealers, not content with the money they were making, discovered ways to make their products last longer by adding Fentanyl (a cheaply produced opioid) to their heroin around 2013. The overdose and hospitalization numbers soared.

Life expectancy in the US decline as a result of these overdoses, and the government finally realized that it had an epidemic on its hands. The illicit drug ecosystem presents a significant challenge to law enforcement. Opiate use today has skyrocketed and has left many people struggling for a way to cope with being addicted to this class of substance.

types of opiates

What are Opiates Used to Treat?

Opiates have historically been used to treat pain. As mentioned before, opiates such as morphine were used during wars as a painkiller. Unfortunately, morphine can be overwhelming and, in its purest form, extremely addictive. During the 80s and 90s, the pain was seen as something that could be medically managed. As a result, prescription painkillers were the go-to substance on offer for patients’ pain.

As opioids took over the market, opiates fell by the wayside as more dangerous (and addictive) drugs took over. Unfortunately, the use of opioids has brought opiates back into prominence, this time on the illicit market. Today, physicians are still wary about prescribing opiates for pain management and treat opioids the same way.

Today, one may still find Codeine – a painkiller derived from opium – in many places. However, painkillers that are prescribed for acute or chronic pain usually use opioids, the more modern iteration to opiates. Even though opioids are still addictive, they are less so than opiates, making them a better choice for physicians who want to take care of their patients but not risk their well-being.

Opioids serve as a reminder that opiates cast a long shadow over pain management. With such a vibrant illicit market providing for the needs of addicted persons, it’s not surprising that opiates continue to be a problem.

Types of Opiates

There are two main classifications of opiates – antagonists and agonists. Antagonists are usually less effective at pain control but can help someone overcome opiate addiction.

Agonists, on the other hand, are the most commonly used opiates. They mimic the effects of endorphins in the brain, producing feelings of well-being and euphoria. The most common opiate agonists one may encounter are:

  • Codeine: Usually used to treat mild to moderate pain, Codeine isn’t as potent as other opiates. It appears in several over-the-counter medicines and is typically used by young adults.
  • Darvon/Darvocet: These painkillers are no longer distributed legally since they were responsible for severe hospitalizations and overdose deaths in the 90s. The black-market versions of these drugs still exist, unfortunately.
  • Dilaudid: Commonly called “hospital-grade heroin,” this drug is a powerful painkiller that can be used in extended-release capsules. Abusing this drug may lead to difficulty in breathing and even death.
  • Fentanyl: A synthetic opioid that is used only in cases of severe pain. It can be as much as 100 times as potent as morphine, which is already a powerful and dangerous painkiller. In the black market, heroin is usually mixed with Fentanyl, leading to a higher chance of death from overdose.
  • Morphine: One of the first opiates, morphine is a derivative of the opium poppy’s sap and remains one of the most potent (and addictive) painkillers around.

Opiates and their relative opioids tend to impact the same areas of the brain. Addiction is possible in both cases.

Opiates In The Body – How Do They Work?

A human brain is a complex machine that utilizes chemical transmission to get messages from one part to another. They function by a system of neurotransmitters – chemicals that bind to specific sites that carry messages when they get there.

Unfortunately, some of these sites are also in the perfect shape to accept the opiate molecule. Receptors aren’t picky about what they receive, and if the molecule is the right shape (or close enough to it), they bind with the chemical. Generally, this wouldn’t be a problem, but in the case of opiates, the side effects are what can lead to dependence and addiction.

The message sites that opiates bind to deal with pain transmission. From a non-specialist’s point of view, it’s a simple idea – fewer free sites for pain transmission mean less pain.

By introducing opiates into the bloodstream, they cover up much of the free sites that the body would use to send pain signals, resulting in far less pain as a result. Unfortunately, they lead to the body producing a chemical known as dopamine – the brain’s “feel-good” chemical. This chemical eventually produces feelings of well-being in the patient, intense emotions that they refuse to leave behind. It’s this feeling of euphoria that leads individuals to seek out the substance, even when they’re not in pain.

This behavior is typical of a person who is addicted to the substance.

opiates and the body

Opiate Addiction

When someone starts taking an opioid or opiate, their body starts to become used to having the drug in their bloodstream.

Over time, the body becomes tolerant of the drug’s effects, leading to the person needing to use more to get the same feelings of euphoria that they’re used to. Tolerance feeds into dependence. When someone takes a drug and becomes dependent on it, they cannot function normally without the substance.

Dependence varies with different medications. Opiates are so dangerous because they impact some of the most potent reward-centers in the brain.

Dependency by itself is not addiction, however. When someone is dependent, their body needs the substance to function regularly. Addiction is a brain disease that taps into this dependency, causing the person to make rash and illogical decisions searching for the substance.

Addiction is the spiral towards social ruin and can lead to people being shunned by their peers and even their families. However, just because dependency isn’t as ruinous as addiction doesn’t mean it’s safe ground. When a person is dependent on the substance, they need to have access to it.

Depending on how long they’ve been using the drug, they may start getting withdrawal symptoms if they don’t take it when the brain demands it.

Physicians face many problems associated with opiates and opioids, the most common of them being overdosing on the substances.

Typically, when a person is taking opiates, they may be combining them with other substances, including benzodiazepines and alcohol. Because of how these drugs work, combining them can lead to unpredictable outcomes, including overdose. In many cases, the person may be taking drugs by themselves, and no one would be around to witness their overdose.

By the time someone finds them, it may be too late. The dangers of these drugs are exacerbated when they’re mixed with others.

Detox and Withdrawal

The first step in overcoming addiction to opiates is detoxification, which requires a person to go through withdrawal. Withdrawal happens when a person is dependent on a substance but doesn’t take it when they crave it. It’s the body’s way of dissuading a person from breaking off the use of a drug.

If someone decides to stop using the substance, they can taper off their usage over time. When they go into withdrawal, the symptoms may be less pronounced because of this approach. Unlike other drugs, the withdrawal symptoms for opiates and opioids aren’t life-threatening but can lead to physical and psychological distress. When a person goes through withdrawal, the intensity of symptoms will differ based on how long they’ve been using the substance and when last they took it.

Detox is usually done in a specialized facility that allows for observation by trained medical staff. While it’s possible to detox on one’s own, the urge to relapse becomes more intense the longer someone goes through the process. Withdrawal symptoms usually set in within the first day of avoiding use. Among the common symptoms of opiate withdrawal are:

  • Sweating and Muscle Spasms
  • Insomnia
  • Abdominal Cramps
  • Anxiety and Agitation
  • Nausea and Vomiting
  • Tremors
  • Diarrhea
  • Constricted Pupils
  • Erratic blood pressure readings

Symptoms will increase during the process and may peak within the second or third day before dissipating. While detox can be uncomfortable, it needs to be done to break the body’s dependence on the substance. Only then can a person seek long-term solutions for their addiction.

opiate withdrawals

Opiate Addiction and Recovery

Over the long term, therapy sessions and mutual support groups help form a solid method of overcoming opiate addiction. Unfortunately, addiction doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all solution. Each person’s journey to recovery is unique. At Divine Detox, we know how each person’s journey differs and create tailor-made treatments for each of our clients. Our staff is kind and compassionate, and we help support you through the discomfort of detoxification and beyond. If you’re ready to take the journey to recovery, you couldn’t choose a better place to start.

Call us today to schedule your visit and speak with our staff about your situation. 

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