Narcotics–What Exactly Are They?

Narcotics is a term commonly used and heard, but often with some confusion. In fact, the term means various things opioid addictionin different settings. Generally, narcotics are considered addictive and potentially harmful substances in whatever way the classification is cited. We tend to think that whenever a drug is designated as a narcotic that it is dangerous and/or should only be used as needed medically. There is a great deal of cultural stigma attached to the illegal use of narcotics as well. Typically, we think of heroin in this classification, for example.

Origins and a Basic Definition

The word narcotic has Greek origins, containing the root word narko which means of sleep or the state of being numb. Strictly speaking then, a narcotic is a drug that induces sleep or numbness. Overall, these are the usual effects of sedatives, hypnotics, opiates and opioids. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary echoes this definition stating a narcotic is a drug (as in opium or morphine) that in moderate doses dulls the senses, relieves pain, and induces profound sleep but in excessive doses causes stupor, coma, or convulsions.

Medical Use of the Term ‘Narcotic’

Medically, we find the designation of ‘narcotic’ generally refers to opioid prescription painkillers and opiates such as heroin and codeine. According to the Medical Dictionary* a narcotic:

  • Induces narcosis which is drowsiness, stupor or unconsciousness.
  • Is an agent that produces insensibility or stupor, applied especially to the opioids, i.e., to any natural or synthetic drug that has actions like those of morphine.

Legal Use of the Term ‘Narcotic’

Laws in the United States refer to narcotics in yet a different way. The Federal laws governing drug sale and manufacture refer to all illegal drugs as narcotics. In this context, a narcotic is a drug that is completely prohibited. It is deemed to have no legitimate medical use and is not available legally, even by prescription.

U.S. Federal law states:  The term narcotic drug means any of the following whether produced directly or indirectly by extraction from substances of vegetable origin or independently by means of chemical synthesis or by a combination of extraction and chemical synthesis: opium, opiates, and derivatives of them; poppy straw and its concentrates; coca leaves that still contain cocaine; cocaine and its salts; and any compounds or mixtures that contain any of the above.**


** Code of Federal Regulations. Title 21–Food and Drugs, Drug Enforcement Administration. Department of Justice. Revised as of April 1, 2016: 21CFR1300.01