Law All The Legal Opioids In The United States And How They're Abused  

Sarah Blumert
9 items

Drug use and abuse have been hot button issues in the US for decades. While many presidents, public officials, and national policies have attempted to curb the country’s dependence on harmful substances, the advancement of medical technology has created even more potentially dangerous substances. Legal opioids are especially ubiquitous in the market and are very harmful as these drugs have a proven capacity to kill people when misused. Opioids don't just relieve pain but, when used beyond recommended doses, provide highs that are so habit forming many citizens develop dependencies or addictions. While illegal drugs such as heroin are still a major public concern, there is a growing epidemic of abuse of prescription drugs in the United States. 

Given their current widespread use in hospitals nationwide, many concerned patients find themselves asking, "Are opioids addictive?" Any medication, even meds administered responsibly, comes with inherent risks. What are opioids capable of when abused? To answer some of these questions, below is a list of facts about legal opioids often found in medical settings. While many of their intended results and side effects are similar, the strength, dosage, and consistency of usage determine whether the devastating effects of excessive opioids will plague each individual consumer. Although these substances can lead to positive results in a hospital room or with a prescription, their unauthorized usage can send drug users into a spiral from which escape is extremely difficult.

Morphine is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list All The Legal Opioids In The United States And How They're Abused
Photo:  GeoTrinity/WikiMedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Use: Morphine is a common opiate used to relieve intense pain, often following severe injury or surgery. Typically morphine is given if no other pain medications prove sufficient.

Side Effects: Pain, burning, or swelling at IV site, trouble breathing, skin irritations, and slow heartbeat.

Facts on Abuse: Since the early 2000s, morphine abuse has been on the rise. Between 2004 and 2008 alone, the number of morphine addicts admitted to the emergency room increased by 106%. Between 2005 and 2011, emergency room visits for morphine increased by 120%. More than half of accidental drug deaths in the US are caused by morphine and heroin, with morphine being the third most common cause of emergency room visits. 

see more on Morphine
Oxycodone is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list All The Legal Opioids In The United States And How They're Abused
Photo:  Psiĥedelisto /WikiMedia Commons/CC0 1.0

Use: Oxycodone is a pain reliever prescribed for moderate to severe pain. Some variations include OxyContin, which  contains a higher concentration of oxycodone (40-160 mg/dose) than other pain medications (2.5-10 mg/dose), making it much more powerful and effective but also more dangerous than many other prescribed opioids.

Side Effects: Nausea, vomiting, constipation, loss of appetite, dizziness, tiredness, headache, dry mouth, sweating, and itching.

Facts on Abuse: Oxycodone is commonly used un-prescribed, resulting in over 150,000 ER visits in 2011 and 16 million reported abusers in 2012. While current stats focus more broadly on opioids as a whole, opioid addiction has gone up in general, climbing 493% from 2010 to 2016. However, the federal government issued a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, a large manufacturer of OxyContin, in 2017, claiming the company misled consumers and medical professionals in regards to the drug's addicting nature. Since then, prescription rates for oxycontin and other opioids fell, which may curb abuse rates. 

see more on Oxycodone
Hydrocodone is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list All The Legal Opioids In The United States And How They're Abused
Photo: WikiMedia Commons/Public Domain

Use: Hydrocodone, more widely known as Vicodin, is used to treat moderate to severe pain, usually after injury or surgery. It is strictly used to treat those with severe and constant pain. Due to its potent nature, it's generally only prescribed if other medications cannot sufficiently manage a patient's pain.

Side Effects: Stomach pain, dry mouth, tiredness, headache, back pain, muscle tightening, difficult urination, ringing in the ears, sleep difficulties, swelling of the limbs, and uncontrollable shaking

Facts on Abuse: In the early 2000s, experts estimated that Vicodin abuse quadrupled over the course of a decade, with more than two million people suffering from extreme addiction.  In 2016, Vicodin was the most widely prescribed opioid on the market, contributing to abuse rates. As of 2015 an estimated 21 to 29% of patients abused opioids prescribed to them and overdoses increased by about 30% from 2016 to 2017 in 45 states. 

see more on Hydrocodone
Codeine is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list All The Legal Opioids In The United States And How They're Abused
Photo:  John Perivolaris/Foter/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Use: Codeine generally treats mild to moderate pain and is actually a main ingredient in non-prescription medications such as Tylenol and other popular pain relievers. However, it is much more potent in its pure form and considered a Schedule II drug, meaning it has a high potential for abuse. 

Side Effects: Effects that may occur after excessive usage include anxiety, restlessness, fast heartbeat, fever, sweating, muscle spasms, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and shallow breathing.

Facts on Abuse: Patients who consume codeine run a high risk of developing a tolerance for the drug and, if the usage persists, a dependence. In part due to the fact tolerance develops quickly, codeine is also frequently mixed with other substances such as alcohol to produce a better high, increasing risks of potentially deadly complications. Due to concerns about its potency, the FDA restricted use of codeine in children's medications in 2017. However, opioid use overall is on the rise nationwide and codeine remains an ingredient in many over-the-counter medications and is widely prescribed in pure form to treat pain. 

see more on Codeine