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The terms “opioids” and “opiates” are commonly used interchangeably, but there are differences between the two.

Opiates have powerful analgesic (pain relieving) effects, and are widely synthesized for use in drugs.

Opioids are drugs prescribed as painkillers and are synthetic opiates. Opioids are among the most commonly used prescription drugs.

Where Do Opioids and Opiates Come From?


An opiate is a substance that comes from the poppy plant. Opium is the dried latex that comes from the poppy. Opium latex contains about 12 percent morphine.

The morphine is chemically processed and used to make heroin and synthetic opioids for medicinal use and for illegal sale. The latex also contains the closely related opiate codeine.

Opiates are called “natural” by some since the active ingredients are found in a plant and not made by a chemical process.


An opioid is a substance that is chemically synthesized. The active ingredients are manufactured from a chemical process. Opioids act like opiates in the body due to being composed of similar molecules and acting on the same receptors in the brain.

Examples of opioids are the prescription medications hydrocodone, codeine, fentanyl and many others.


The terms opiates and opioids are typically used interchangeably. Street language uses the word “heroin” to refer to synthetic, natural or partly synthetic mixtures.

Manufactured opioids such as Vicodin are sometimes called synthetic heroin.

Authentic heroin is technically an opioid because it’s chemically manufactured. Ingredients from the opium plant are used in the manufacturing, but some of the active ingredients in heroin aren’t found in nature.

Currently, many use the term “opioid” when discussing all opium-like substances (both opioids and opiates). It’s common to limit the use of the term “opiates” to only substances made from naturally occurring opium poppy plants, such as morphine.

The DEA Schedule of Drugs

The Drug Enforcement Agency publishes a Schedule of Drugs. In this schedule, drugs and certain substances are classified into distinct categories based on each drug’s acceptable use and its potential for abuse and dependency.

As the classification numbers rise, the potential for danger decreases. Thus, Schedule I drugs are considered the most dangerous to a person’s health, Schedule II less so, and so on.

Heroin is a Schedule I drug. It has no accepted medical uses and has the highest potential for abuse and dependency.

Schedule II drugs have accepted medical uses, but also carry a high potential for abuse and dependency. Examples of drugs classified in this category are hydrocodone (Vicodin), methadone, oxycodone and hydromorphone (Dilaudid).

Schedule III drugs are considered to have a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence and include codeine.

A Simple Way to Remember

To keep it simple, the most basic differences between opioids and opiates:

  • Opiate – narcotic analgesic derived from an opium poppy
  • Opioid – narcotic analgesic that is at least partly synthetic, not found in nature

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Opioids and Opiates: What’s the Difference?
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