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Narcotic Drugs

A category of addictive drugs that reduce the perception of pain and induce euphoria.

A narcotic is a depressant that produces a stuporous state in the person who takes it. Narcotics, while often inducing a state of euphoria or feeling of extreme well being, are powerfully addictive. The body quickly builds a tolerance to narcotics, so that greater doses are required to achieve the same effect. Because of their addictive qualities, most countries have strict laws regarding the production and distribution of narcotics.

Historically, the term narcotic was used to refer to the drugs known as opiates. Opium, morphine, codeine, and heroin are the most important opiate alkaloids— compounds extracted from the milky latex contained in the unripe seedpods of the opium poppy. Opium, the first of the opiates to be widely used, was a common folk medicine for centuries, often leading to addiction for the user. The invention of the hypodermic needle during the mid-19th century allowed opiates to be delivered directly into the blood stream, thereby dramatically increasing their effect. By the late 20th century, the legal definition of a narcotic drug had been expanded to include such non-opiate addictive drugs as cocaine and cannabis.

Narcotic drugs decrease the user's perception of pain and alter his or her reaction to pain. For this reason, narcotics—primarily codeine and morphine—are prescribed legitimately as pain killers. In a medical setting, they are referred to as narcotic analgesics. For pain relief, scientists have developed opioids, which are synthetic drugs with morphine-like properties. Some common synthetic opioids include meperidine (trade name Demerol) and methadone, a drug often used to treat heroin addiction. The use of methadone as a treatment for addiction is controversial, however, since methadone itself is addicting.

Scientists have attempted to develop ways to use the pain-killing properties of narcotics while counteracting their addictive qualitites. Such investigations have led to the discovery of narcotic receptors in the brain, and of the body's own natural pain-killing substances, called endorphins. Narcotics behave like endorphins and act on, or bind to, the receptors to produce their associated effects. Substances known as narcotic or opioid antagonists are drugs that block the actions of narcotics and are used to reverse the side effects of narcotic abuse or an overdose. A new class of drugs, a mixture of opioids and opioid antagonists, has been developed so that patients can be relieved of pain without the addictive or other unpleasant side effects associated with narcotics.

Narcotic drugs are among those substances used illegally, or abused, by adolescents. Some estimate that as many as 90% of adult drug addicts began a pattern of substance abuse during adolescence.

Further Reading

Sanberg, Paul R. Prescription Narcotics: The Addictive Painkillers. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.

Traub, James. The Billion-Dollar Connection: The International Drug Trade. New York: J. Messner, 1982.

Willette, Robert E., and Gene Barnett, eds. Narcotic Antagonists: Naltrexone Pharmacochemistry and Sustained-Release Preparations. DHHS Publications No. ADM 81-102 490 1, NIDA Research Monograph No. 28. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, 1981.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Ibn Bajjah (Abu-Bakr Muhammad ibn-Yahya ibn-al-Saʼigh, c.1106–38) Biography to Perception: cultural differences