Although the term “narcotics”
is sometimes used inaccurately to describe all drugs (or, at
least, all illegal drugs), narcotics are actually a small family
of drugs hanging by a common thread: they relieve pain.
There are two basic types of
narcotics: opiates, which are derived from the opium poppy (e.g.
morphine, codeine, and heroin), and synthetics, including such
drugs as methadone, Dilaudid®, Demerol®, Darvon®,
Although narcotics are the least-used
of all the major drug groups by children, heroin use has been
on the upswing in recent years, with past-year use in 2002 by
high school seniors running more than double over 1992 totals.
Heroin travels under a lot of
assumed names, including “H,” “horse,” “smack,”
and “junk.” It’s sold as a white or brown powder (sometimes
called “China white” or “Mexican mud”) or
as a dark, sticky resin, called “black tar.” Heroin
and morphine are usually injected, although in recent years the
average purity of street heroin has been so high that it can
be sniffed or smoked. Prescription narcotics are usually dispensed
in pill form, but can be dissolved and injected.
Besides relieving pain, narcotics
also reduce anxiety and induce feelings of euphoria. In the process,
they constrict pupils, cause constipation, and reduce both respiration
and blood pressure.
Dangers tied to street narcotics
are well known, although many people forget that prescription
drugs can cause the same problems:
- Dependence. All narcotics produce a strong physical
and psychological dependence, linked to drug specifics and duration
- Overdose. Narcotic overdoses are life-threatening,
especially with heroin, since potency can vary so much on the
- Withdrawal. Symptoms include chills, cramps, sniffles,
diarrhea, and vomiting piled on top of intense anxiety. Still,
even if it might seem a fate worse than death to unwilling addicts,
opiate withdrawal rarely involves life-threatening complications.
- HIV/AIDS. Since users often have to share “works”
(injection-drug equipment), contaminated needles remain a major
source of HIV infection.
Surprisingly, narcotics are less
likely than alcohol, depressants, or stimulants to cause direct
harm to the central nervous system or to internal organs. Aside
from the risks of overdose and HIV infection, physical damage
most often results from indirect causes, such as malnutrition
and poor health.
An especially risky form of narcotics
are so-called designer drugs, which usually turn up on the street
during heroin shortages or “panics.” Manufactured in
illegal labs, designer “heroin” is often a variation
on the synthetic narcotic, fentanyl.
It carries the same risks as
heroin, but poses an even greater threat of overdose, since the
fentanyl high wears off before its respiratory depressant effects.