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A narcotic is a substance that produces insensibility, or a stuporous state. The most notable characteristics of narcotics are their ability to decrease the perception of pain and alter the reaction to pain, and their extremely addictive properties. Narcotics often induce a state of euphoria or extreme well being. The word narcotic is derived from the Greek word narké (meaning stupor), and traditionally applies to drugs known as opiates. Recently, the word narcotic has been adopted to include non-opiate, addictive drugs such as cocaine and cannabis. Narcotics are primarily used in medicine as pain killers and are often called narcotic analgesics.

Opiates are compounds extracted from the milky latex contained in the unripe seed pods of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). Opium, morphine, and codeine are the most important opiate alkaloids found in the opium poppy. Opium was used as folk medicine for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. In the seventeenth century opium smoking led to major addiction problems. In the first decade of the nineteenth century, morphine was isolated from opium. About 20 years later, codeine, one-fifth as strong as morphine, was isolated from both opium and morphine. In 1898, heroin, an extremely potent and addictive derivative of morphine was isolated. The invention of the hypodermic needle during the mid-nineteenth century allowed opiates to be delivered directly into the blood stream, which increases the effects of these drugs. Synthetically produced drugs with morphine-like properties are called opioids. The terms narcotic, opiate, and opioid are frequently used inter-changeably. Some common synthetically produced opioids include meperidine (its trade name is Demerol) and methadone, a drug often used to treat heroin addiction.

Scientists have discovered narcotic receptors in the brain, along with natural pain killing substances produced by the body called endorphins. Narcotics behave like endorphins and act on, or bind to, the receptors to produce their associated effects. Substances known as narcotic or opioid antagonists, are drugs that block the actions of narcotics and are used to reverse the side effects of narcotic abuse or an overdose. A new class of drugs, a mixture of opioids and opioid antagonists, has been developed so that patients can be relieved of pain without the addictive or other unpleasant side effects associated with narcotics. Most countries have strict laws regarding the production and use of narcotics because they are so addictive.

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