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How do Opiates Differ from Opium?

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Opiates and opium are both derived from opium poppies. However, there are some differences between natural and synthetic versions of the drug. This article will focus on the differences between an opiate prescription drug and opium.

What is Opium?

Opium poppiesOpium comes from the milky fluid that leaks out of the seedpod of an opium poppy. The fluid is air-dried and turns into a fine, brownish powder. Opium is used in many legal forms of medicines in the United States such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, and morphine.1

Though illegal, opium is sold on the black market. Opium in its pure form is still not safe unless it is being used under the careful watch of a medical professional. In most cases, opium is processed into other forms. Unless opium is acquired directly from the poppy in its raw form, opioids are more common.

How Do Opiates Work?

Opiates are man-made chemicals that act like or even enhance opium. They create intense feelings of relaxation and pleasure by attaching to opioid receptors in the brain. A common semi-synthetic form of opium is heroin, which is processed from morphine and then is mixed with other substances. Once heroin enters the bloodstream and crosses into the brain, it’s converted into dopamine giving the user an intense feeling of pleasure. For this reason, heroin abuse is quite common.

Semi-synthetic and synthetic forms of the drug are designed to release at a steady rate to minimize feeling high. When opioids such as OxyContin and Vicodin are taken in a way other than prescribed, they more closely mimic the faster effects of heroin and morphine.2

Here are a few common traits of opioid use:

  • A person must take higher and higher doses over time to feel the same effects.
  • Opioids enter the brain quickly and cause an immediate sensation of intense pleasure.
  • Snorting or injecting opioids is common and also raises risk of a drug overdose


Opiate Use Today

In many cases, opiates are more commonly abused than opium today in the United States. In fact, widespread opioid use for pain treatment creates many unintended problems. Many researchers believe dramatic increases in prescribing rates for prescription opioids in the 1990s and beyond led to the current high rates of addiction.

Current evidence suggests that people addicted to prescription painkillers are now turning to heroin because it is more cheaply available. Heroin use carries greater dangers than prescriptions because it is likely to be tainted with other substances.3

What You Can Do Today

If you or your loved one has a drug problem, please know you can get help today. Just call 760.548.4032 to speak with one of our admissions coordinators at Michael’s House. Opiates are a very powerful drug, so as drug use continues the risk of serious harm increases. Please call today and get the help you need to be able to live without opiate dependence.


1Opioids.” National Institutes of Health, Accessed May 11, 2018.

2What is Heroin?National Institute on Drug Abuse, Accessed May 11, 2018.

3Opioid Overdose Crisis.”  National Institute on Drug Abuse, Accessed May 11, 2018.