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What are Semi Synthetic Opiates?

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Semi synthetic opiates are used for many reasons: doctors prescribe them to pain patients, they are used as an anesthetic for surgery, and recreational users take them for their euphoric high. But what are semi synthetic opiates?


The DOJ defines opium as “a highly addictive non-synthetic narcotic that is extracted from the poppy plant, Papaver somniferum.” Opium and the poppy plant can be used to create many other types of drugs. There are three types of opiate-based drugs (or narcotics).

  • Natural Opiates
    • These are considered natural because they occur in nature. They are found as alkaloids in the poppy plant, most often in the seedpod.
    • Some examples of natural opiates are: opium, morphine, and codeine
  • Synthetic Opiates
    • Actually called opioids, these are not found occurring in nature. According to the ISATE, “synthetic opiates are manufactured in chemical laboratories with a similar chemical structure” to the milk of the poppy plant.
    • Some examples of synthetic opioids are: fentanyl, pethidine, and dextropropoxyphene.
  • Semi-Synthetic Opiates
    • Also considered opioids because they are only half-natural, these drugs are the combination of natural opiates and synthetics.

Semi-Synthetic Opiates

According to the state senate of California, “semi-synthetic opiates were developed in the early 20th century.” They use “chemicals from opium plants as a base.” They were meant to be safer and more effective than the use of pure or natural opiates for medical purposes.

Some examples of semi-synthetic opiates are:

  • Oxycodone
    • Derived from: thebaine (a naturally-occurring substance in the poppy plant)
    • Used for: moderate to severe pain patients who need constant monitoring and medical
    • Found in: Oxycontin, Dazidox, Endocodone, and Percolone
  • Oxymorphone
    • Derived from: morphine (a naturally-occurring substance in the poppy plant)
    • Used for: moderate to severe pain patients and for anesthesia before surgery
    • Found in: Opana
  • Hydrocodone
    • Derived from: codeine (a naturally-occurring substance in the poppy plant)
    • Used for: severe pain patients and as a cough reliever
    • Found in: Vicodin, Maxidone, Oncet, Anexia, and Lorcet (in these drugs, and in others, it is usually combined with acetaminophen)
  • Buprenorphine
    • Derived from: thebaine
    • Used for: treating opiate addiction as it is an opioid agonist-antagonist and, while containing some opiate elements, can also deactivate opioid agonists that are attached to the receptors
    • Found in: Subutex and Suboxone
  • Ethylmorphine
    • Derived from: morphine
    • Used for: treating dry coughs
    • Found in: Indalgin, Feco Syrup, and Cosylan
  • Heroin
    • Derived from: morphine
    • Used for: recreation, getting high, a highly addictive illicit drug
    • Street names: “black tar, H, Horse, Junk, Skag, Smack” (NLM)

Side Effects

opium derivatives

Heroin, oxycodone, and hydrocodone are all semi-synthetic opiates.

Semi-synthetic opiates have most of the same side effects that other opioid medications and drugs do. Even though they were originally created to be safer alternatives, they can still cause:

  • Physical dependence
  • Psychological dependence
  • Addiction
  • Drug-seeking behavior
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Overdose
  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Constipation
  • Vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Death

Because opiate-based drugs always have inherent risks, semi-synthetic opiates have these risks as well. If you are using semi-synthetic opiates for pain or for another reason, talk to your doctor about the side effects in order to be well-informed.

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