The term narcotic refers to any medication or drug that tends to dull the senses, such as opioids, anti-anxiety medications, and marijuana. In a law enforcement context, the term has taken on an inaccurate definition with negative connotations, as it is used to signify any drug or substance that cannot be legally transported, sold, or possessed. These include such substances as cocaine, methamphetamine, “angel dust,” and many others.  To explore this concept, consider the following narcotics definition.

Definition of Narcotics


  1. Any substance that dulls the senses, or which, in sufficient quantities, creates euphoria, stupor, or unconsciousness, or which is addictive.


1350-1400       Middle English       narcotic

What are Narcotics

Narcotics are medications or drugs which, from a medical standpoint, have been created from opium, or opium-like compounds, which have strong pain-relieving effects. These drugs also have a high likelihood of causing changes in mood and behavior, and most are addictive. As society’s use of substances, including opioid medications and recreational drugs, has increased, the term narcotics has been expanded to refer to any drug or substance with effects similar to opium and its derivatives.

History of Narcotics

The history of narcotics has been traced back to the ancient empires of the Greek, and of the Chinese. As early as 4,000 B.C., the opium poppy was cultivated in Mesopotamia, which is now the area of Southwest Asia. From there, the plant passed to the Assyrians, then to the Egyptians. It is the seeds from this plant that are processed to manufacture heroine, a drug destined to enslave billions of people throughout history.

In the first century A.D., Galen, a prominent Greek physician and philosopher in the Roman empire, coined the term “narcotic,” referring to substances that cause loss of movement, numbness, or paralysis. He listed, as this type of drug, such things as poppy juice (opium) and mandrake root, among others. While Galen’s interest in these substances was of a medical nature, people all over the globe used narcotics to change their mood, and diminish inhibitions. People became addicted to opium before they knew they were in danger.

Effects of Narcotics

Modern times see narcotics in a wide variety, from medications that may be prescribed by doctors to help patients cope with injury and illness, to drugs and substances that are illegal to possess. The effects of narcotics vary by the type and dosage of the drug, causing such symptoms as sleepiness and sedation, and nausea and vomiting. Some people experience a feeling of euphoria for a period of time after taking the drug, though this feeling wears off, tempting the user to use it again and again.

The effects of narcotics are intensified when taken by a method that encourages fast absorption into the blood stream. This includes snorting a powder form of the drugs, or injection of a liquid form into the veins. Taking narcotics orally, as when taking prescription pain medications, lessens both the euphoric and pain relieving effects of the drugs, as they must be broken down in the stomach before gradually entering the blood stream. However, medications taken this way also tend to last longer, providing relief over a period of hours, rather than minutes.

Side Effects of Narcotics

While pain relief, sedation, and euphoria may seem like positive effects to many people, narcotics also come with a hefty set of side effects. These side effects range from uncomfortable and scary, to life-threatening.

  • Loss of appetite, upset stomach, vomiting
  • Dehydration, dry mouth
  • Increased pain, or decreased tolerance to returning pain
  • Lack of coordination, slowing of reflexes
  • Restlessness
  • Cold sweats, excessive sweating
  • Chronic constipation
  • Alternating constipation and diarrhea
  • Hallucinations or psychosis
  • Collapsed veins, needle marks (scarring) on the skin
  • Blood poisoning
  • Infection of the heart or lungs
  • Diseases, such as Hepatitis, HIV, and AIDS

Dangerous Effects of Narcotics

Many of these drugs’ side effects are quite dangerous, leading to brain damage or death. Dangerous effects of narcotics include:

  • Sedation to the point of unconsciousness or coma
  • Vomiting while unconscious
  • Brain damage
  • Seizures
  • Difficulty breathing, slowed breathing, cessation of breathing
  • Reduced heart rate or cardiac arrest
  • Death

The higher the dose, the greater the risk of overdose. In addition, the faster the route of absorption, the greater the risk of overdose.

For example:

Tyler’s friend has been stealing his mother’s Vicodin pills for months, and sharing them with his friends. Tyler has taken them several times in the past, experiencing a floaty, disconnected feeling that he likes. One evening, Tyler follows his friend’s lead, and crushes up the pills, snorting them. The same dose – two pills – absorbed more quickly through the mucous membranes of his nose, intensive the effect, causing Tyler to pass out and stop breathing. In this example of narcotics overdose, Tyler is likely to die from his use of someone else’s prescription pain medication.

What are Scheduled Narcotics

Because of the danger they present to society, certain medications, drugs, substances, and chemicals are classified by the U.S. Office of Diversion Control, a division of the Drug Enforcement Administration (the “DEA”) into categories referred to as “schedules.” Categorization of scheduled narcotics is done according to whether the drug has an acceptable medical use, and its potential for abuse or addiction.

The drug schedules are ranked in terms of the drugs’ abuse rating: those with the highest potential for abuse and dependence listed being in Schedule I. The drugs listed in Schedules II through V fall in order of decreasing risk. Descriptions of how scheduled narcotics are classified into Schedules can be found on the DEA website.

List of Narcotics

Narcotics come in many forms, most of which are prescribed to relieve moderate to severe pain. When considering the broader legal use of the term, the list of narcotics grows considerably. The following list of narcotics is intended to serve as an example of potentially dangerous drugs available, both by prescription, and on the street. The most common names are used here.

Pain Medications

Name Type or Active Ingredients Legal Form
Buprenorphine Opioid medication used to treat opioid addiction Rx
Codeine Opioid pain medication used for minor pain, and cough Rx
Fentanyl Surgical anesthesia Dr. Use Only
Heroin Opioid pain killer None
Hydrocodone Synthetic opioid pain medication (Ingredient in Vicodin) Rx
Hydromorphone Opioid pain medication (Dilaudid) Rx
Levorphanol Very strong opioid pain medication (similar to morphine) Rx
Lorcet Opioid pain medication (hydrocodone and acetaminophen) Rx
Lortab Opioid pain medication (hydrocodone and acetaminophen) Rx
Norco Opioid pain medication (hydrocodone and low dose acetaminophen) Rx
Opium Highly addictive opioid pain killer No
Oxycodone Semi-synthetic opioid pain medication for severe pain Rx
Oxycontin Extended release form of oxycodone Rx
Procet Opioid pain medication (codeine and acetaminophen) Rx
Vicodin Brand name pain medication (hydrocodone and acetaminophen) Rx
Xodol Brand name pain medication (hydrocodone and acetaminophen) Rx
Zydone Brand name pain medication (hydrocodone and acetaminophen) Rx


Tranquilizing Medications (“Benzodiazepines”)

Medications that are classified as benzodiazepines affect certain chemicals in the brain that cause anxiety and panic disorders. Tranquilizing medications are often addictive, and have the risk of slowing or stopping the user’s breathing, causing unconsciousness, and even death if taken in high, or too frequent doses. Following list of narcotics includes commonly prescribed tranquilizing medications, all of which are addictive.

Name Type or Active Ingredients Legal Form
Alprazolam Short-acting anxiety medication (generic name). (Brand name Xanax) Rx
Ativan Brand name anxiety medication. (Generic name Lorazepam) Rx
Diazepam Anxiety medication (generic name) commonly used to treat anxiety, alcohol withdrawal, seizures, and muscle spasms. (Brand name Valium) Rx
Klonopin Brand name medication primarily used to treat seizure disorders. (Generic name Clonazepam) Rx
Lorazepam Generic anxiety medication (Brand name Ativan) Rx
Valium Brand name anxiety medication commonly used to treat anxiety, alcohol withdrawal, seizures, and muscle spasms. (Generic name Diazepam) Rx
Xanax Brand name short-acting anxiety medication. (Generic name Alprazolam) Rx


Death by Narcotics Example of Murder Charges

The use of addictive medications for pain and anxiety is on the rise in the U.S., as are deaths caused by overdose of these potentially dangerous drugs. Public concern has risen over the availability of dangerous and addictive substances – both by legal prescription, and on the street. Physicians trying to treat patients who have a legitimate need for narcotics and other potentially addictive medications must constantly be vigilant for addicted individuals who are abusing such substances.

In March, 2012, Dr. Hsiu Ying “Lisa” Tseng was arraigned in the Los Angeles County Superior Court, having been charged with three counts of murder for the deaths of three of her patients. In fact, a dozen of Dr. Tseng’s patients, to whom she had been prescribing narcotics, had died; though prosecutors only charged her with the three deaths to which they could draw a straight, uncomplicated line.

While making the case for the murder charges against Dr. Tseng before a jury, prosecutors also produced mountains of evidence for the felony charges of illegally writing prescriptions for 16 other patients, in addition to two of the dead patients. Three of those charges arose from her writing prescriptions to undercover police officers, who were investigating how quick she was to write prescriptions for narcotics after only cursory office visits.

Deputy District Attorney, John Niedermann, told the jury that Dr. Tseng had built a new medical clinic with the $5 million she earned in just three years, prescribing “crazy, outrageous amounts of medication” to patients who didn’t have a legitimate need for narcotics. Tseng’s attorney argued that she had been duped by the patients, as she is a deeply compassionate person who was just trying to help.

The jury deliberated 10 days before convicting Tseng of murdering 21-year-old Joseph Rovero, 29-year-old Vu Nguyen, and 25-year-old Steven Ogle. Each young man died of narcotics overdoses within a 9-month period in 2009. In this example of narcotics prescription prosecution, Dr. Hsiu Ying Tseng was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Criminal Arraignment – The arraignment process is used for criminal cases only. In some jurisdictions, criminal arraignment is only used in felony cases.
  • Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
  • Generic Drug – A medication that is equivalent to a brand-name medication in composition, dosage, strength, quality, route of administration, and intended use.
  • Murder – The unlawful killing of a human being.