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narcotic, any of a number of substances that have a depressant effect on the nervous system. The chief narcotic drugs are opium, its constituents morphine and codeine, and the morphine derivative heroin.

See also drug addiction and drug abuse.

Actions and Uses

In small doses narcotics have valuable medical uses, numbing the senses, relieving severe pain, and inducing sleep. They are also given preoperatively to relieve pain and anxiety. Common side effects include constipation, nausea, and allergic reactions. In large doses narcotics can be highly dangerous, causing stupor, coma, convulsions, or death. All narcotics are addictive; several morphine derivatives as well as chemically dissimilar narcotics that have been developed for medical use have fewer side effects and are less addictive than morphine, but they are also generally less potent. Unlike general anesthetics such as ether and chloroform, narcotics depress the respiratory center and in low doses relieve pain without inducing sleep. Respiratory depression occurs in newborns whose mothers have been given narcotics such as meperidine (Demerol) during labor. Narcotics differ from barbiturates and other sedatives in that they have no anticonvulsant action; also, narcotics relieve pain, while sedatives do not.

Attempts at Control

There are strict controls on narcotic prescription and administration in the United States. Nevertheless, addiction to narcotics, especially heroin, which has no legal use, continues to be a serious problem. There have been nationally and internationally based attempts to control the production of narcotics and to limit their export and import to medical use only. Large quantities are nonetheless grown in SW Asia (e.g., Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan), in SE Asia (the “Golden Triangle” region of Myanmar and Thailand; cultivation in Laos was largely eradicated in 2005), Lebanon, Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala, and a large illicit traffic in these substances continues.


See publications of the Drugs & Crime Data Center and Clearinghouse, the Bureau of Justice Statistics Clearinghouse, and the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a substance of plant or synthetic origin whose abuse leads to narcomania. In Soviet medicine the term “narcotic” is also applied to substances used for anesthesia.

In addition to narcotic plants and their derivatives (the opiates; Cannabis indica and its derivatives, hashish and marijuana; Erythroxylon coca and its alkaloid, cocaine; cola, betel, and maté leaves), narcotics also include alcohol, synthetic morphine analogs, and psychotomimetics. Narcomania may result from the abuse of barbiturates, central nervous system stimulants (am phetamines and others), and other drugs that act on the nervous system.


Soviet criminal law provides punishment for the making and supplying of narcotics and other potent, toxic substances. For example, according to Article 224 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR, the making and supplying of narcotics may be punished by imprisonment of up to ten years, with or without confiscation of property. Theft of narcotics is punishable by imprisonment of up to five years, with or without confiscation of property. Criminal responsibility is also specified for planting opium poppy, Indian hemp, and southern Manchurian or southern Chu hemp without appropriate permits. Penalties exist for violating laws concerning the storage, distribution, registration, transport, and sending of narcotics, as well as for involving minors in the use of narcotics.

Several international agreements deal with efforts to control the spread of narcotics. At the International Conventions of 1912, 1925, 1931, 1936, and 1945, special control was placed on the manufacture and distribution of narcotics and on the smuggling of opium, morphine, and cocaine. The 1948 Protocol placed the newest narcotics under international regulation. The International Narcotics Control Board and the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs exercise general supervision over the international traffic, production, and distribution of narcotics. The USSR participates in most of these conventions for the control of narcotics.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


A drug which in therapeutic doses diminishes awareness of sensory impulses, especially pain, by the brain; in large doses, it causes stupor, coma, or convulsions.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


any of a group of drugs, such as heroin, morphine, and pethidine, that produce numbness and stupor. They are used medicinally to relieve pain but are sometimes also taken for their pleasant effects; prolonged use may cause addiction
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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