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What Are Synthetic Opioids?

What Are Synthetic Opioids? | Just Believe Recovery PA

In This Article

Synthetic opioids are a category of human-made drugs that have a chemical makeup comparable to natural opiates and semi-synthetic opioids derived from the opium poppy. They include both prescription painkillers and illicit fentanyl and its analogs, carfentanil, methadone, Tramadol, and U-47700, among others.

More specifically, the compounds that make up synthetic opioids are exclusively made by humans, typically in a pharmaceutical lab. Their chemical structure is similar to their natural counterparts.

The process of designing synthetic opioids is different from that used for natural opiates such as opium alkaloids codeine, morphine, and thebaine extracted from opium pods and then refined and made into medicine. Also somewhat different are semi-synthetic opioids, which include prescription painkillers such as oxycodone or hydrocodone, which are derived from thebaine and are also partially human-made.

About Synthetic Opioids

Synthetic opioids are commonly used as cutting agents in other drugs such as heroin. They may also be found pressed into pill or tablet form and sold on the black market or Dark Web as counterfeit painkillers or anti-anxiety drugs. Because synthetic opioids are so powerful and can be used as adulterants in other dangerous drugs with the user being unaware, unintentional overdose is unfortunately quite common.

A tragic example of this occurring was the 2016 death of the artist Prince. A bottle of pills labeled as Vicodin was found by his bedside. It was later revealed that the pills actually contained the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl, and this was determined to be the primary cause of his untimely death.


What Are Synthetic Opioids? | Just Believe Recovery PA

Fentanyl was first developed in 1974 is one of the most common synthetic opioids found in the U.S. today. It is an especially potent drug often found in illicit form—about 50-100 times more powerful than morphine.

Pharmaceutical companies produce the drug for legitimate medical purposes, but underground drug manufacturers also make it for illegal distribution. Currently, many fentanyl analogs can be found on the black market. These analogs are minor variations from each other and are potentially even more harmful to the mind and body.

According to NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse), an analysis of opioid-related overdose deaths revealed that synthetic opioids such as fentanyl had surpassed prescription opioids as the most common substance involved in overdose fatalities in the U.S. A letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) stated that nearly half of opioid-related deaths in 2016 involved fentanyl.

This report examined mortality data from the National Vital Statistics System from 2010-2016. This includes information on all deaths in the United States based on death certificates submitted by medical examiners and coroners. Results show that among the more than 42,000 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2016, 19,413 (45.9 percent) involved fentanyl, while 17,087 (40.4 percent) involved prescription painkillers and 15,469 (36.6 percent) involved heroin.


Carfentanil is considered to be the most potent opioid in the world. It is up to 10,000 times more powerful than morphine and was designed for use as a large animal tranquilizer. The powdered form has been used as a lethal cutting agent in heroin. The illicit use of carfentanil has helped facilitate the dramatic increase in opioid overdose fatalities in the United States.

Carfentanil has been responsible for thousands of deaths in Ohio in the last few years. This trend is primarily related to the addition of carfentanil in the cocaine supply. This is also true of meth, albeit to a lesser extent. Moreover, most of these unfortunate victims used one or more of these stimulants without knowing that carfentanil was an additive, and users had little or no tolerance to opioids.

Synthetic Opioids and the Opioid Crisis

Between 2017-2018, drug overdose fatalities rose by 10% in the United States, totaling more than 72,000 Americans. The popularity of especially lethal synthetic opioids continues to make up the majority of the ever-rising death toll. Fatalities related to prescription opioids, which were accused of being the catalyst for the ongoing opioid epidemic, started to level off around 2011. Many regions of the country even benefitted from a reduction.

Synthetic opioids, on the other hand, appear to have added fuel to the fire. In what is known as the “second wave” of the opioid crisis, drug traffickers began using synthetic opioids to mimic other substances’ effects. This strategy can be very profitable for traffickers and dealers because fentanyl is inexpensive to produce, and a little goes a long way.

Fentanyl is usually cheaper to manufacture than cocaine or heroin. When used as an adulterant or substitute, it also substantially increases the potency of the products and, as a result, the user’s pleasure. And, because it is much more powerful than heroin, it is even more addictive. If an individual survives fentanyl abuse and does so repeatedly, he or she will likely be so dependant on its potency that even going back to regular heroin could prove quite challenging.

The Effects of Synthetic Opioids on the Mind and Body

The effects that synthetic opioids inflict on the mind and body are similar to that of other opiates and opioids, which act on the brain and spinal cord. Prescription opioids are tightly controlled by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), with predesigned potencies and consistent effects.

However, illicit synthetic opioids are unregulated. This means that drug potency can vary widely during the manufacturing process, from dealer to dealer, and even between different batches, depending on what other addictives it contains.

What Are Synthetic Opioids? | Just Believe Recovery PA

Using synthetic opioids to seek a more intense “high” typically results in an intensification of symptoms that can dramatically increase overdose potential. Regardless of whether these substances are administered orally, sublingually, snorted, smoked, or injected, the general effects are similar.

Variations include the level of intensity, time of onset, and, of course, the route of administration. Physical symptoms of opioids include euphoric feelings of well-being, pain relief, nausea, drowsiness, sedation, reduced heart rate, and respiration.

Newer, more potent synthetic opioids and their analogs are continually being produced. Unfortunately, standard drug detection tests that distinguish between types of opioids have yet to become accessible to coroners, medical examiners, emergency medical personnel, or hospitals.

Treatment for Addiction

Synthetic opioid addiction is a very severe and life-threatening condition. Each year, thousands of individuals are killed by unintentional overdoses involving synthetic opioids. Many who overdose or die are not even aware that the drugs were in the product they were purchasing and using, which may have included heroin, cocaine, or meth.

The drug market is currently rife with incorrectly marketed products and drugs combined with other substances unknown to users. As such, anyone struggling with drug addiction is at a high risk of accidental overdose, regardless of their drug of choice.

Just Believe Recovery offers integrated treatment for substance abuse in both partial hospitalization and inpatient (residential) formats. Our programs include therapeutic, evidence-based services essential for the process of recovery, including behavioral therapy, counseling, peer group support, aftercare planning, and more.

If you or someone you know is showing signs of addiction to prescription or illicit drugs or alcohol, we urge you to call us as soon as possible. Find out how we help those who are motivated to recover break free from the chains of addiction and reclaim the happy and satisfying lives they deserve!

⟹ READ THIS NEXT: Fentanyl vs Heroin
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