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Photo of Matt M. McClenahen
Photo of Matt M. McClenahen

What are Narcotic Drugs?

On Behalf of | Oct 11, 2013 | Drugs

Perhaps the most misused term in the world of criminal law is “narcotics.” Many people who should know better, such as police officers, prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys and crime beat reporters, use the term “narcotic” as a synonym for any illegal drug. Thus, in their use of English, marijuana and cocaine a narcotics, while Oxycodone is a “prescription drug.” When I hear such misuse of the term “narcotic” I want to pull out my hair and scream. As a criminal defense attorney interested in linguistics, it is one of my major pet peeves.

As ridiculous as it would sound to call a pilsner, hefeweizen, merlot or Riesling “vodka,” it would actually make more sense than referring to all illegal drugs as narcotics. Although various forms of alcohol such as wine, beer and spirits are made differently, taste different and have differing levels of alcohol, they all share ethyl alcohol as the active ingredient, which causes intoxication. Conversely, cocaine, marijuana, LSD and psilocybin mushrooms have very different effects from those of narcotic drugs.

So, what exactly is a narcotic, if it is not simply a more sophisticated sounding term for any drug, which happens to be illegal? “Narcotic” is derived from Ancient Greek, and used to refer to any drug, which had a sedative or numbing effect. Today, the term narcotic refers to opiate drugs, that is any drug derived from opium poppies, as well as synthetic opiates. Thus, heroin, opium, and hydrocodone are all narcotics. Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin mushrooms and cocaine are absolutely, positively not narcotic drugs! In fact, cocaine is the opposite of a narcotic; it is a stimulant. Cocaine has far more in common with caffeine than it does with any narcotic drug

The Pennsylvania Drug Device and Cosmetic Act, which regulates legal drugs and provides penalties for the possession and sale of illegal drugs, correctly uses the term “narcotic drug” to refer to natural and synthetic opiates. If you ever read through portions of the Drug Device and Cosmetic Act, it will be readily apparent that it was written by or with the assistance of physicians, which explains why the correct medical terminology is used. Despite the clear language of The Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act, it appears that constant misuse of the term “narcotic” by fictional cops and prosecutors in TV and movies over the course of decades has had more power over the lexicon of those in the criminal justice system than the actual drug laws themselves.

Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense lawyer based in State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University. He limits his practice to criminal law and has extensive experience representing defendants in drug cases.

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