Heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid made from morphine, a naturally occurring opiate in the poppy plant. An opioid is a drug that activates opioid receptors in the brain.

Article at a Glance:

  • Heroin is an opioid but not an opiate
  • Opiates occur naturally in opium poppy plants
  • Opioids are chemicals that activate opioid receptors
  • Both opioids and opiates activate opioid receptors
  • All opiates are opioids, but not all opioids are opiates
  • Some opioids are synthetic and produced entirely in a lab.

The term “opioids” refers to any substance that affects the opioid receptors in the nervous system, but is heroin an opiate or an opioid? An opiate is a substance derived from opium poppy plants. All opiates are opioids, but only some opioids are opiates. Because heroin is derived from morphine, a naturally occurring opiate, it is considered a semi-synthetic opioid.

For most purposes, the distinction between opioids and opiates is not very important. The terms describe whether an opioid occurs naturally or is made synthetically.

Opioids and opiates are used medically, but they have the potential for misuse. Though some opioids are used in prescription medication, heroin is an illegal Schedule I controlled substance.

Is Heroin an Opioid?

Heroin is an opioid because it activates opioid receptors in the central nervous system. Most opioids are prescription medications used to treat pain. All opioids can be misused because of their ability to produce euphoria or feelings of extreme happiness.

Examples of opioid medications that are NOT opiates include:

Is Heroin an Opiate?

Heroin is not an opiate because it is not found naturally in the opium poppy plant. Heroin is made in a lab with morphine as a starting ingredient. Because it is derived from an opiate, heroin is considered a semi-synthetic opioid.

The term opiate technically refers to naturally-derived substances that come from opium. Some examples of true opiates are morphine and codeine.

If you would like to learn more about opioid addiction and treatmentcontact The Recovery Village today. Our team can talk to you about programs that fit your needs or the needs of your loved one. The decision to enter an inpatient rehab is not an easy one and we are happy to help guide you.

Jonathan Strum
Editor – Jonathan Strum
Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor's in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. Read more
Conor Sheehy
Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Conor Sheehy, PharmD, BCPS, CACP
Dr. Sheehy completed his BS in Molecular Biology at the University of Idaho and went on to complete his Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) at the University of Washington in Seattle. Read more

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Heroin.” 2018. Accessed May 20, 2019.

Medlineplus. “Opiate and Opioid Withdrawal.” 2016. Accessed May 20, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.