Heroin is an opioid that’s one of the main causes of the current opioid crisis. But if you’ve followed the problem over the past few years, you may have heard that synthetic opioids like fentanyl are causing a spike in overdose deaths. What’s the difference between heroin and synthetic opioids. Learn more about these drugs and why they’re dangerous together.
What is a Synthetic Drug?
Psychoactive substances are found all over nature. They exist inside the human body as a part of the chemical messaging system that allows your nervous system to communicate with different parts of your body. They also exist in other animals and plants for various purposes. Some use them in the same way we do, while others use them as chemical deterrents for predators. Opiates were first discovered in opium poppy plants.
These plants have several naturally occurring opioids in their sap-like milk, which is called opium. The plant was used for its chemical properties for centuries. In the 1500s, an opium elixir called laudanum was used as a painkiller. In 1804, morphine was discovered in opium, along with codeine and other alkaloids. In 1974, a remarkably similar opioid was found inside the brain of a cow. Scientists called the discovery endorphin, which is short for endogenous morphine.
All of these chemicals are opiates or naturally-occurring opioids. Heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid, which means that it is made by altering an existing opioid. Heroin is made by chemically altering morphine to create a new drug. Though it comes from morphine, heroin is slightly stronger and offers more potent effects. Morphine and codeine are used to make other semi-synthetic opioids like oxymorphone and oxycodone.
Synthetic opioids are opioids that are entirely made in laboratories and aren’t chemically-related to natural opiates in the same way semi-synthetic opioids are. Many synthetic opioids are much more potent than opiates like morphine. Higher potency drugs are cheaper to make and easier to transport. They can also treat pain that weaker opioids would be ineffective against. But they can also lead to abuse and overdose more easily.
Synthetic Opioids Versus Heroin
When a chemical is altered, a new chemical is created, as in the case with morphine and heroin. There are dozens of opioids that exist in nature and that were made in laboratories. They’re created as medications, but they can also be made for illicit recreational use. Heroin, in its pure form, is the semi-synthetic opioid it has always been, and there is really no such thing as a version of it that could be considered synthetic heroin. However, illegal street heroin is hardly ever found in pure form, and is usually adulterated with many different substances. For the most part, this is done to stretch profits.
Sometimes additives are included to enhance effects or to counteract side-effects. In many cases, powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl are added to heroin to make it more powerful to cover the fact that it’s been weakened by adulteration. However, fentanyl may have some of the same effects as heroin, but it’s much more powerful. Taking a high dose of an opioid can cause your heart rate and breathing to slow down, which can lead to death. Fentanyl can do this in a 2-3 milligram dose. That’s as light as a single snowflake.