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Opiates and Their History

Opiates are prescription drugs that are not sold over the counter. This article will define what opiates are and offers the history of opiate use and abuse. Keep reading for more information and history associated with opiates such as Codeine and Hydrocodone.


Opiates, referred to medically as opioids and also called narcotics, make up many of the important pain killers available in medical practice. Pain killers are usually developed and marketed by pharmaceutical companies for general or specific healthcare applications. They are divided in the industry by whether they are available over the counter (OTC) or require a prescription, and all opiates are legally available only by prescription. Both categories of drugs can be abused.

Drugs or substances that are not sold OTC - and therefore all opiates - are divided into five schedules, labeled with Roman numerals. Scheduling is based on evaluation of scientific and medical properties, as well as the following considerations: 

  • Does the substance or drug have potential for abuse? 
  • If there is evidence of abuse, what is the pattern of abuse, extent of abuse, and scope of abuse? 
  • Is there evidence that it is currently being abused or diverted from legitimate use? 
  • Is the substance or drug closely related to another drug or substance already known to have potential for abuse? 
  • How extensive is the current knowledge of the substance’s action? 
  • Does the substance pose a threat to public health?

Schedule I is for drugs for which there is no currently acceptable medical usage in the U.S. It includes, for example, the opioid heroin, as well as LSD and marijuana.

For Schedules II-V, all drugs with medical use:

  • Schedule V, the least restricted, includes drugs or substances with a low potential for abuse, and limited effects when abused. It includes medications like cough medicines with the opioid codeine.
  • Schedule IV, the next least restricted, includes drugs that are less addictive and potentially damaging than Schedule III, for example, the opioid marketed as Darvon®.
  • Schedule III, which follows the same pattern, includes codeine and hydrocodone with aspirin or acetaminophen.
  • Schedule II, the most restrictive of the legally available drugs, includes the opioids morphine, cocaine, and methadone.

Here are some of the most often used opiates. There is a group of medicines used to treat more severe pain that combine NSAIDs and opioids. Combinations are not included in the chart.


Anileridine Methadone
Buprenoprhine Morphine
Butorphanol Nalbuphine
Codeine Opium
Hydrocodone Oxycodone
Hydromorphone Oxymorphone
Levorphanol Pentazocine
Meperidine Propoxyphene

History of Opioids

Grown as early as 3400 B.C., opium was cultivated by the Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians. Opium was used as a narcotic by Hippocrates, introduced to Persia and India by Alexander the Great, and used as painkillers by Paracelsus during the Renaissance. In 1803, German Friedrich Sertuerner discovered morphine, and in 1843, a Scottish doctor, Dr. Alexander Wood, first administered it by injection with a syringe. Heroin was first synthesized in 1874, by an English scientist, C. R. Wright, and first sold by The Bayer Company in 1898.

Opiates and Their History Sources:

  • dea.gov
  • “Pain.” Rebecca Frey PhD, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Neurological Disorders, 2005
  • nlm.nih.gov
  • pbs.org

Related Article: Oxycodone and its History >>

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