Heroin and morphine are opioids with a long history of use in the United States. Morphine was the first opioid discovered and used for medical purposes in the United States. It was widely used to treat pain, and it was heavily used in battlefield medicine throughout the 20th century. Heroin was discovered by altering morphine, and it too was once used to treat pain in the United States. However, only morphine is still used for medical purposes in the country today, but both can be used as recreational drugs. What’s the difference between these two similar drugs, and how do they compare?
Learn more about the similarities and potency of heroin and morphine.
What is Morphine?
Morphine is a prescription drug that’s used to treat pain. It’s an opiate, meaning it’s an opioid that can be found in nature, specifically in the opium poppy plant. Chemically, morphine is similar to the endorphins found in the human body, which bind to opioid receptors and manage pain. Morphine imitates the endorphins in the brain by binding to the opioid receptors and activating them.
Morphine is classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a Schedule II drug, meaning it’s used in professional medical settings, but has significant potential to be abused. Heavy or prolonged use of morphine can easily lead to addiction.
What is Heroin?
Heroin is an opioid that is made from morphine. It’s commonly mixed with water and injected into the bloodstream with a needle, but it can also be smoked or snorted. These methods send heroin to the brain quickly, making it highly addictive.
There are major health complications associated with heroin use, such as:
- Heart infections
- Death due to overdose
Using heroin regularly will increase your tolerance for it. You will need more and more of it for it to have the same effects. As your dosage increases, your body will become more dependent on heroin. Stopping will lead to withdrawal symptoms, such as:
- Cold flashes
- Bone and muscle pain
Similarities and Differences
Heroin and morphine have several similarities. Since heroin is made from morphine and converts to morphine in the body, they work in similar ways. Heroin is an opioid that’s made by altering morphine in a lab. When heroin is taken, morphine is an active metabolite, which is a new chemical that is introduced when a chemical is being broken down by the body. In a sense, you experience the effects of morphine whether you take morphine or heroin.
Heroin and morphine are federally controlled substances. However, heroin is a slightly more strictly controlled substance than morphine. Heroin is considered a Schedule I drug in the United States, which means it has a high abuse potential with no currently accepted medical uses. Morphine is a Schedule II drug, meaning it has similar abuse potential, but it also has accepted medical uses.
In the U.S., heroin is illegal to buy or sell, and morphine requires a prescription. In other places around the world, like the United Kingdom, both drugs can be obtained with a prescription. In the U.S., they are used as recreational substances for their relaxing euphoric effects. Using them for too long or using them in high doses can lead to addiction and opioid use disorders. Both can also cause uncomfortable flu-like withdrawal symptoms if you quit using them after becoming opioid-dependent.
Even though heroin and morphine share many similarities, they do have a few differences. Heroin is considered to be stronger than morphine and more toxic in high doses. Morphine is an opiate since it can be found in nature, while heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid since it’s made with the use of an opiate.
Heroin vs. Morphine: How They Affect the Brain
Opioids activate the opioid receptors in the brain, causing sedation and pain relief. Research has found that using opioids while experiencing trauma may reduce the risk of developing post-traumatic stress. However, high doses can also cause intoxication and euphoria. Prolonged use can cause the brain to adapt to the drug’s presence in the body, which changes natural brain chemistry.
When you stop using, your brain becomes chemically imbalanced, leading to withdrawal. Many have described opioid withdrawal as similar to the flu. Because there are opioid receptors located all over the body, the effects of withdrawal are felt all over the body.
Opioids cause addiction by influencing the reward center in the brain, which picks up on activities that make you feel good, such as exercise. Most of the time, activities that produce “feel-good chemicals” like serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine are healthy. However, opioids can also release these chemicals. They imitate the endorphins your body naturally produces and release extra dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is closely related to reward.
Addiction is marked by a compulsive desire to use, despite the harm it brings. Opioid addiction can be particularly difficult to overcome, but it is treatable.
Heroin vs. Morphine Potency
Heroin and morphine are similar drugs, but which of these two opioids are stronger? Potency is measured in various ways. It’s important to note that a stronger drug may not be stronger across the board. In other words, one drug’s potency in relieving pain may be stronger, while its potency in causing sedation is weaker. Many drugs have different strengths and weaknesses.
Potency can often be determined by looking at the drugs’ different effective doses. Morphine injections are usually started in doses of 0.1 mg to 0.2 mg and are given every four hours. A standard dose may be around 2 mg/mL to 4 mg/mL. It may be used in doses as high as 15 mg/mL. However, proper doses are determined by many factors, including a person’s size, the severity of their pain, their age, and their sex.
Heroin is no longer used as a prescription drug in the United States, so a proper starting dose may be harder to determine compared to morphine. Illicit heroin users often use doses around 5 milligrams and use more as they become tolerant to opioids. A 30-milligram dose may be dangerous to the average person, but an opioid-tolerant user may take that dose with few side effects.
When it comes to whether heroin or morphine is more dangerous, heroin is considered to be more powerful. Heroin may be around 10 times more powerful than morphine when it comes to the potential for dangerous side effects like respiratory depression. Heroin is a semi-synthetic drug that’s made from morphine. Lab-made opioids are often more powerful than opiates that occur in nature.
Which Drug Carries More Overdose Risks?
Morphine and heroin can cause dangerous overdose symptoms when taken in high doses. They carry the potential to cause a life-threatening overdose when they are taken on their own. However, overdoses may be even more likely if the drugs are taken alongside other substances like alcohol, central nervous system depressants, or other opioids. Heroin is more common as a recreational drug, and since it is also considered to be ten times more powerful when it comes to dangerous symptoms like respiratory depression, it may come with more of an overdose risk.
Respiratory depression is when your breathing slows down or stops. Even slowed breathing can cause you to pass out, fall into a coma, or experience brain damage. Respiratory depression is one of the most common causes of death in opioid overdose cases.
People use heroin and morphine recreationally, which increases their risk of overdose. However, heroin is more common as an illicitly used opioid than morphine. It can be difficult to determine if an overdose was caused by heroin or morphine since heroin is broken down and converted into morphine very quickly after it’s taken. However, heroin is trafficked into the country as a black market drug, so the majority of overdoses in which morphine is found likely point to heroin.
What Is Involved in Opioid Treatment?
Addiction treatment may involve a wide range of treatment options, but the most effective treatments are personalized. When you start a treatment program, you should meet with a therapist so you can provide them with the key information needed to create your plan. Because addiction can be caused by any number of factors, people will respond differently to different forms of treatment. An individualized treatment plan ensures that you are getting the care that meets your unique needs.
It’s also crucial for a treatment plan to address multiple issues because addiction can cause a variety of problems. Seek out addiction treatment plans that also address problems like financial struggles, occupational issues, and others. The most effective treatment plans address the whole picture, including medical, psychological, social, and legal issues.
Although treatment should be personalized, one of the most highly recommended treatment methods is behavioral therapy. Behavioral therapies help people to develop lasting, meaningful behavior changes. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most common ways to treat addiction. It focuses on how thinking can cause positive or negative behaviors. CBT helps people learn to avoid relapse by teaching them positive coping methods and combat thoughts that could lead to a relapse.