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Narcotics have been a mainstay of the drug subcultures, as well as of respectable society, throughout the ages. Even as late as 1885, opiates were available in over-the-counter, non-prescription preparations. Even common refreshments and cordials featured derivatives of opium as ingredients.

Though considered by some to be immoral, the use of opiate preparations, such as laudanum, and smoking opium was quite legal. In fact, it was only in 1942 that the American Congress banned opium poppy cultivation nationally. In the 19th Century, addiction was not nearly the social evil it is considered today.

Couples did not divorce because of narcotics addiction and workers were not fired because of it. Since then, however, the true nature of addiction has been discovered, and terrible consequences of it, for society as well as the individual, has been learned. Today, the class of drugs called "narcotics" includes some of the most dangerous, addicting, and widely abused drugs in modern society.

Formally, the term "narcotics" refers to derivatives of the opium poppy which act as a hypnotic or tranquilizer. The most popular of these derivatives includes opium, morphine, codeine, and heroin. The first three are naturally occurring in the opium poppy, while the last, heroin, is made by acetylating morphine.

All have been used medicinally at some point in history, and morphine and codeine are still widely used analgesics (painkillers). Heroin was once thought to be a viable treatment for morphine addiction (a wide-spread problem during the late 19th and early-to-middle 20th Century).

As it turned out, heroin was much more insidious, addicting, and physiologically damaging than the morphine which it was supposed to replace. Codeine is, perhaps, the least horrible of these, being a milder acting opiate, but still is addictive and has the potential for abuse.

In fact, considering that innumerably more people have legitimate access to codeine (through prescriptions) than to heroin (which is not prescribed), it is quite possible that codeine addictions and abuses far outnumber those of heroin, which is relatively more difficult to procure.

Though abuse of narcotics centers upon the drug's ability to provide momentary pleasure, many people are introduced to them in medicinal treatment. Admittedly, the medicinal value of narcotics is inestimable. Morphine and codeine have been used to kill pain in patients where such treatment with mild analgesics such as aspirin and acetaminophen would be a cruel joke.

For post-operative pain as well as chronic or acute trauma-induced pain, codeine has found many adherents, and often is compounded with a milder analgesic to provide the patient with a broader spectrum of relief. The principle effect of narcotics is to depress the central nervous system functions, diminishing the transmission of pain signals to the brain.

As a result, however, other CNS-related functions are compromised, such as involuntary muscle control, motor skills, and coordination. Overdose of any narcotic may result in confusion, delirium, slurred speech, coma, and death. It is absolutely imperative, therefore, to take any prescription narcotics, or their synthetic analogs, according to a physician's directions.

The effect of long-term use of narcotics, even at approved, prescription levels, is a physical dependence. The physical dependence, while not always accompanied by categorical, observable hepatic, renal, or neural degradation, manifests itself invariably in severe withdrawal symptoms, including severe headaches (which require heavier doses of the narcotic to quell them), convulsions or shakes, fever and/or chills, and delirium.

What makes heroin a particularly monstrous drug is that it has the ability to cause addiction after only a single dose. The withdrawal symptoms described may occur after even the first experimentation with heroin, making hard core addiction even more likely. Furthermore, the addiction poses a dilemma for even the most moral of people: they must decide between stealing to provide for the heroin fix and suffering the anguish of withdrawal in the most horrible terms.

In many forced withdrawals (as when the addict cannot find another fix, or when incarcerated) the withdrawal is so intense that death results. Though these cases of addiction following a single dose of heroin are the extreme, and account for only 3-5% of heroin addicts, it illustrates the dangers of heroin.

Many more have been casual users of opium or morphine and tried heroin, usually intravenously ("mainlining") occasionally. After a number of weeks where the frequency of use increased, from once a month to weekend use, the user soon is taking heroin every day and cannot stop without experiencing severe, debilitating withdrawal symptoms.

The addict must continuously buy more of the drug and stay out of school or work during the "trips" while under the influence. Addicts usually forfeit relationships, jobs, adequate sleep, financial security, and other amenities of a self-sufficient lifestyle while under the sway of addiction.

A number of paths are offered to the individual who wishes to "kick the habit" of narcotics addiction. Quitting "cold turkey," that is, suddenly and absolutely, is one. This method, however, is found to be virtually impossible by the majority of addicts, as the ensuing withdrawal symptoms are of such force and intensity that it is likely that an addict will choose to revert to drug use rather than suffer the agony.

Furthermore, weathering the withdrawal is only the first part of the fight against addiction. Following the most intense of the withdrawal symptoms is what is known as "postaddictive syndrome." It is during this time, which may last as long as several weeks or months, that recovering addicts experience marked depression, anxiety, and craving. Often, during this time, recovering addicts relapse into drug use.

Maintenance programs are one other option and, though helpful for a great many addicts, are not without their problems. Methadone (a synthetic analog of heroin) is often prescribed as a drug for use in weaning an addict off of heroin. Methadone maintenance programs are burgeoning as they help thousands of addicts through the withdrawal symptoms and the following postaddiction syndrome.

Because of its analogous effects, though milder than heroin, methadone itself may be, and often is, abused. Nevertheless, the support apparatus which accompanies methadone maintenance programs helps to prevent relapses in addicts and is, on balance, a blessing to thousands of ex-addicts.


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