Opiates versus opioids
What sets these two drugs apart?

The terms “opioids” and “opiates” are often used interchangeably.

But, what exactly are these drugs and where did they come from?

While opium and human beings have had a long history together, the jump from opiates to opioids has had catastrophic effects on health and wellbeing.

Here’s the scoop on opiates vs. opioids and what sets the two apart.

Opioids vs. Opiates: what’s the difference?

The term opiate was originally used to describe compounds derived from opium, a product of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum).

There are six primary opiates found in the poppy, including morphine, codeine, thebaine, papaverine, narcotine, and narceine.  

Three of these compounds have considerable medical value.

While morphine, codeine, and thebaine are valuable for pain relief, they are currently controlled substances under international law due to their addictive and sometimes potentially toxic nature.

From these compounds, researchers have been able to make synthetic drugs referred to as opioids.

While the term opioid was used to describe only synthetic compounds, like the illicit drug heroin, it is now used as a broad category to describe all opioid and opiate compounds.

Where do opioids and opiates come from?

The opium poppy has a long history.

Historically, the opium poppy has long been used as a valuable medicine.

Like cannabis, teas and other oral concoctions were used for millennia to ease pain, gastrointestinal distress, and sleep problems.

However, the opium plant also has a long history of recreational use and addictive potential.

Unlike cannabis, the recreational use of opium has strong risks of dependency and an overdose can be life-threatening.

This overdose risk is heightened by the creation of opium derivatives and synthetic variations of the drug.

It wasn’t until the early 1800s that the infamous drug morphine was first isolated from the opium poppy.

The isolation of morphine, an opiate, allowed for very high concentrations of opiates for medical use.

Heroin, the opioid, was then first created by Bayer Pharmaceuticals in 1874 from morphine.

Prior to the isolation morphine and manufacture of heroin, opium was a minimally processed plant substance that was frequently smoked. Though, it still carried a high potential for addiction.

A few decades after the advent of heroin, its addictive potential became apparent and the heroin trade was born.

Though, the opium trade was the catalyst for the Chinese Opium Wars in the 1800s, a good indication that humans have had a complex and difficult relationship with this plant for several hundred years.

Now, opioid preparations are tens to hundreds of times more potent than morphine have been introduced into medical practice and black market sales.

One of these hyper-potent opioid drugs is Fentanyl, invented in 1959 by Janssen Pharmaceutica.

Fentanyl is the drug that took the life of beloved rock icon Prince and is estimated to be 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

Derivatives of Fentanyl can be up to 10,000 times more potent than morphine.

The drug is considered one of the few drugs that is lethal after a single dose, making it especially dangerous both in medical practice and as a street drug.

Are there opioid alternatives?

Opium may have been problematic to begin with.

Yet, the jump from opium to opiates to opioids has had a dramatic impact on public health over the past century.

A United Nations report published in March of 2017 found that there have been at least 5,000 deaths in North America caused by fentanyl alone, let alone the fentanyl-heroin concoctions now sold on the black market.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), both licit and illicit opioid drugs have claimed over 55,000 lives due to overdose since 2015.

Numbers like these have caused the CDC to declare that the country is in the midst of an opioid crisis.

With so many lives claimed in the opioid epidemic, there is a dire need for safe and non-toxic pain management alternatives.

One of the most promising contenders?


Cannabis as an opioid alternative

Cannabis plant
Opioid fatalities are down in states with medical cannabis programs.

Though cannabis and opium poppies have similar histories, there are good reasons why medical researchers and politicians are advocating for the herb as a safer substitute to opioid pain medications.

Unlike opioids, cannabis overdose has yet to cause even a single known death.

Instead, research suggests that states with medical cannabis policies have lower rates of opioid overdose deaths and opioid-related traffic accidents.

Already, surveys among medical cannabis patients have found that patients prefer cannabis to opioids.

In fact, one Canadian survey found that 61 percent of medical cannabis patients chose the herb over prescription medications, 30 percent of which reported that they selected cannabis over prescription painkillers.

While it may seem odd to advocate replacing one drug with another that has a complex and controversial history, the emerging data suggest that cannabis has lower addiction potential and causes less overall social and personal harm than opioid pain medications.

Certain cannabis compounds, like cannabidiol (CBD), are also currently being investigated for their potential to limit addiction-seeking behaviors.

Believe it or not, this trait may prove to be extremely valuable for those hoping to come off of opioid pain medications.

CBD is a non-psychotropic cannabis compound, meaning that it doesn’t cause a “high”.

Instead, the cannabinoid has been found to block the reward component to opioid addiction. In rodent models, CBD has been found to reduce heroin seeking in addicted animals.

Some progressive researchers even suggest that cannabis medicines may be combined with opioid treatments to improve pain management and reduce the doses needed of each individual compound.

Regardless of whether or not cannabis medicines eventually replace or supplement opioids in pain management, there’s no doubt that safer alternatives to opioids are needed more than ever.

Given the data thus far, cannabis seems to hold great potential in not only reducing the harms of opioid medications but perhaps even helping consumers overcome addiction to the drugs.

It’s safe to say that both benefits should be explored.

Do you know anybody struggling with opioid addiction?

Do you know anybody struggling with opioid addiction?