Narcotic is a term used to refer to certain drugs, including prescription medications that are controlled in the U.S., as well as illegal drugs sold on the streets. Narcotics are also called opioids. These drugs are grouped together because they affect the brain of the person taking it in a certain way. They are considered psychoactive in that they affect behavior and mood. Narcotic medications also share other characteristics with one another. The features of medicinal narcotics include pain relief and drowsiness. The word narcotic is derived from a Greek word that means stupor or sleep.

In the U.S. the term narcotic is often used incorrectly to describe any illegal drug. For example, cocaine may be called a narcotic, but in the technical sense it’s not. Based on governmental descriptions, narcotics include opium, semi-synthetic opioids, and synthetic opioids. Narcotics are specifically depressants or “downers.” Other drug classifications outside of narcotics include stimulants and hallucinogens.

Drug Schedules

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency outlines certain drug schedules. These aren’t just for narcotics but for multiple drug classes. There are five categories, also known as schedules that drugs are grouped into. These range from Schedule I to V.

  • Schedule I drugs are considered to have a high potential for misuse, and they don’t have any accepted medical use in the U.S. Some examples of Schedule I drugs, chemicals, and substances include LSD, marijuana, ecstasy, and
  • Schedule II drugs, substances or chemicals have a high potential for misuse, as well as a high likelihood of physical dependence and psychological addiction. The DEA considers anything that’s a Schedule II drug as being dangerous when used recreationally. Non-narcotic drugs that are Schedule II include methamphetamine, Adderall, and
  • Schedule III drugs, according to the DEA’s list, have a moderate to low possibility of psychological and physical dependence. The idea is that the potential for Schedule III drugs to be misused is lower than I and II, but there is more potential for misuse than Schedule IV substances. Non-narcotic Schedule III substances include ketamine, testosterone, and anabolic steroids.
  • Schedule IV drugs are defined as having a low potential for misuse and dependence. Some non-narcotic Schedule IV drugs include Xanax, Soma, Valium, Ativan, and
  • Schedule V drugs have the lowest potential for misuse as compared to other substances on the list. They may have limited quantities of certain narcotics. Narcotics and non-narcotics in this category are often used as anti-diarrhea medicines, pain relievers, and cough medicines.

Illegal Narcotics

Certain narcotics are illegal in the U.S. One example is heroin. Heroin is an opioid drug sold on the streets that is considered extremely addictive. Heroin can be smoked, snorted or most commonly, intravenously injected. It’s naturally derived and processed from morphine, which is found in poppy plants. These poppy plants are grown in Mexico, Southwest Asia, South America and Southeast Asia. Heroin is usually sold as a powder ranging in color from white to brown, and sometimes it comes in a black tar-like form.

Heroin is especially dangerous among drugs for several reasons. First, it acts very quickly on the person taking it, making it incredibly addictive. It also causes respiratory depression and frequently leads to fatal overdoses. Heroin is classified as a Schedule I substance in the U.S. Currently, heroin is the only Schedule I narcotic in the U.S., since it isn’t used for any medical purpose.

Narcotic Schedule

While heroin is the only drug considered an illegal narcotic, other prescription narcotics fall on different areas of the DEA’s list. The following are details of the narcotic schedule according to the DEA:

  • Fentanyl and compounds related to fentanyl are considered to have high levels of potency. Fentanyl is according to the Federal Controlled Substance Act, a Schedule II narcotic.
  • Hydromorphone is anywhere from two to eight times more powerful than morphine. It is a Schedule II drug, meaning it has a high potential for being misused despite being a medically accepted pain reliever.
  • Methadone is a synthetic narcotic that is often used to help people with opioid use disorder as they stop misusing drugs, but it is a Schedule II drug. It is legal to use methadone under the advice of a physician, but using it otherwise is illegal.
  • Morphine is a natural narcotic derived from opium and used as a pain treatment option. It is a Schedule II narcotic.
  • Opium is a natural narcotic that’s derived from the poppy plant. It can be misused in different ways including by smoking it, injecting it or taking it as a pill. It is Schedule II, and many prescription drugs are derived from opium.
  • Oxycodone is a semi-synthetic narcotic classified as Schedule II.

Some drugs do have an opioid component, and yet they are rated as less addictive than other scheduled narcotics. This is because these are often combination drugs and they tend to have an opioid component below a certain level.

If someone is caught with a substance that’s on the narcotic schedule and they don’t have a prescription, there are varying criminal penalties. Some of the factors that can determine criminal penalties for illegally possessing narcotics include how much of the drug they have, and whether or not they have a previous history of drug arrests.

Class A Narcotics

Other countries around the world also have drug schedules in place, although they’re labeled differently. One example is the UK’s Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. In the UK the drugs included on this list are called controlled drugs, much like the U.S. There are three categories under this law including Class A narcotics and drugs, Class B and Class C. Class A drugs are considered to be most dangerous, and they also have the most stringent legal consequences. Class C drugs are considered to have the lowest risk level. Class A narcotics in the UK include opioid prescription medications, as well as drugs like heroin.

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.