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Opium vs. Heroin: What’s the Difference?

Peter Manza, PhD profile image
Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD • Updated Sep 15, 2023 • 5 cited sources

Opium and heroin are both opiate drugs, with heroin being the more refined and potent. Heroin is also much more common. Opium is rarely used in the United States. And while they share similar chemical properties, effects and dangers, there are also some important differences.

Is Opium Heroin?

Quick Answer

No, opium is not heroin. Opium is a non-synthetic or natural opiate extracted from the Papaver somniferum, the poppy plant. It’s generally smoked, although it may be injected or taken orally. Heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid made from morphine, which is made from the opium poppy. People may inject, snort, or smoke heroin.

The Difference Between Opium and Heroin

Opium is a natural opiate extracted from the poppy plant whereas heroin is semi-synthetic, having been produced from morphine.

Opium and heroin are two opiates, but heroin is more refined.[1] Opium is essentially the source opiate, derived from the seeds of poppy plants. Heroin is made from morphine, which is itself produced through an extraction process involving opium resin or poppy straw. Opium and heroin come in different forms and may be used differently, with the most common way to use opium is to smoke it whereas people often inject or snort heroin.

DEA Scheduling

Opium is a Schedule II controlled substance, which means it technically has a medical use but a high potential for misuse and physiological dependence. Meanwhile, heroin is a Schedule I controlled substance, meaning it’s illegal, has no accepted medical use, and has a high potential for misuse and addiction.

Both of these drugs are opiates and people misuse them in order to experience feelings of relaxation and pleasure.


As a general rule, drugs that are “further refined” tend to be more potent. Put another way, heroin is therefore generally more potent than opium and may therefore be even more hazardous. 


Plus, heroin is usually cut with other dangerous drugs, such as fentanyl and cocaine, as well as adulterants that can harm the body. This means heroin tends to be a more risky drug, although it’s never safe to misuse either one, due to the risk of addiction and health effects.

Heroin Vs. Opium

Legal statusLegal with prescription (although rarely prescribed)Illegal
ScheduleSchedule IISchedule I
FormsLiquid, powder, solid or fine brown powderWhite powder, brown powder, black tar heroin
How It’s UsedSmoked, injected, or taken orally as a pillInjected, smoked, or snorted
Street NamesBig O, Black Pill, Aunti, Chinese Tobacco, Chinese Molasses, Dream Stick, Midnight Oil, Ope, Pen YanH, Smack, Junk, Dope, Snow, Horse, Hero, Beast, Skag
Common Drug CombinationOpium, methamphetamine, marijuanaHeroin, cocaine, fentanyl
Addiction potentialHighHigh
Short-term effectsRelaxation, euphoria and pain-reliefRelaxation, euphoria and pain-relief

What Are the Similarities Between Opium & Heroin?

Opium and heroin are both opiates. Because of this, they both have very similar effects, even if heroin is more powerful.[2] 

These drugs bind to opioid receptors in the brain, causing a variety of effects, including a surge of dopamine and euphoria. This rush is part of what makes both drugs so addictive. The brain and body essentially learn that the opiate is more rewarding than natural rewards, such as food, through this massive increase in dopamine.[3]

Both drugs relieve pain and have, at times, been used historically for pain control. Heroin especially was once considered an extremely valuable drug in medicine, although doctors better understand the dangers of opioids now. When they are appropriate for a patient, doctors prescribe different opioids for pain relief. 

Both opium and heroin have a number of serious health risks, one of the most notable being their overdose and addiction potential. Opiates cause profound respiratory depression, meaning they can lead to dangerously slowed or even stopped breathing.[4] This can be fatal or lead to permanent brain damage. 

Does Either Opium or Heroin Have Legitimate Uses?

There are opioid derivatives that are used for pain control, including drugs like morphine, oxycodone and hydrocodone. Neither heroin or opium are generally considered to have legitimate uses in modern medicine in the United States although opium technically is a Schedule II controlled substance. These drugs should be considered dangerous and avoided.

Does the Type of Opioid Misuse Affect Addiction Treatment?

Treatment for opioid use disorder (OUD) doesn’t usually vary much depending on the type of opioid a person uses. The ideal approach to treating dependence on any opioid – legal or illegal – is Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT). MAT can reduce withdrawal symptoms, mitigate drug cravings and prevent relapse.

MAT combines the use of medications, such as Suboxone or other buprenorphine-naloxone combination drugs, with therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational enhancement therapy and dialectical behavior therapy.[5] At Bicycle Health, we offer online Suboxone therapy, greatly increasing access to this life-saving medication. You can meet with an online Suboxone doctor and pick your prescription up at a local pharmacy. Reach out to us to learn more.

Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD

Peter Manza, PhD received his BA in Psychology and Biology from the University of Rochester and his PhD in Integrative Neuroscience at Stony Brook University. He is currently working as a research scientist in Washington, DC. His research focuses on the role ... Read More

  1. Opiates or Opioids — What's the Difference? Oregon Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission. Accessed March 2023.
  2. Opioids. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Accessed March 2023.
  3. The Neuroscience of Drug Reward and Addiction. Physiological Reviews. September 2019. Accessed March 2023.
  4. Understanding and Countering Opioid-Induced Respiratory Depression. British Journal of Pharmacology. June 2021. Accessed March 2023.
  5. Effective Treatments for Opioid Addiction. National Institute on Drug Abuse. November 2016. Accessed March 2023.

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