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Morphine, Heroin and Methadone: Treating Opioid Addiction with Opioids

Opioids are among the most widely used drugs in the world and have held this position for the better part of the last two thousand years. Derived from various parts of the poppy plant, opioids like straight opium, morphine, heroin, methadone, Oxycontin, Fentanyl and many others are used for a variety of medical purposes. This includes as a cough suppressant, analgesic, and even as a treatment for addiction. In fact, when it comes to treating addiction the relationship between morphine, heroin and methadone is striking. Understanding this connection is critical because the fact of the matter is that all opioids are highly addictive.

For thousands of years mankind has had a very close relationship with the poppy plant. Early peoples like the Sumerians and ancient Greeks used opium regularly in medicine and recreationally.

Centuries later most of the known world would be deeply involved in the opium trade, and addiction to the drug was rampant. In fact, China fought two wars against Great Britain that were in effect an attempt to alleviate opium abuse and addiction problems.

In the early 1800’s morphine was extracted from the poppy plant and was quickly put into production by a German pharmaceutical company. Physicians lauded the drug as a powerful painkiller, among other things:

“The drug was first marketed to the general public by Sertürner and Company in 1817 as an analgesic, and also as a treatment for opium and alcohol addiction. Later it was found that morphine was more addictive than either alcohol or opium, and its extensive use during the American Civil War allegedly resulted in over 400,000 sufferers from the “soldier’s disease” of morphine addiction.” (1)

The invention and widespread use of the hypodermic needle contributed to a severe morphine addiction epidemic that raged nearly out of control until the latter part of the century, when the U.S. government made efforts to control dangerous narcotics. At the same time, another German company developed a drug called Heroin, which passes the blood-brain barrier much more rapidly than morphine and therefore results in a more significant perceived “reward” – and therefore increased reward-seeking behavior: addiction.

In both cases the theory behind using morphine and heroin to treat opioid addiction was that the drugs could be better regulated, resulted in fewer negative side effects and appeared to have less damaging effects than an addict’s former opioid of choice. Physicians and others in the health care industry realized their mistake a little too late, and by the turn of the century some prominent individuals and groups were actually advocating the use of heroin:

“The philanthropic Saint James Society in the U.S. mounts a campaign to supply free samples of heroin through the mail to morphine addicts who are trying give up their habits.” (2)

Very little changed during the next several decades until methadone was synthesized in the late 1930’s. Methadone has unique properties in that the drug blocks the ability of users to get high from it. This means that addicts can slowly “step-down” from their addiction without experiencing the sometimes severe effects of acute withdrawal syndrome. However, even these effects are not sufficient enough to fully defeat addiction. In almost all cases, a drug addiction treatment program will be required.

If you or someone you love is struggling with an addiction to opioids, please dial the number at the top of your screen for a free, confidential consultation. We understand the addictive process better than anyone, and our exceptionally high success rates are a testament to this. Call us and get your life back now.

(1) Wikipedia Morphine
(2) PBS.org Opium Throughout History

About The Contributor
The editorial staff of Recovery First is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed thousands... Read More