Oxycodone and morphine are two strong pain relievers that share structural similarities and are both alkaloids, which are nitrogen containing organic molecules. They differ in that morphine is a component of opium and is part of a group of chemicals known as opiates. All compounds that have a similar structure to the opiates, including those synthesized chemically like oxycodone, are known as opioids. These compounds differ in their method of metabolism, degree of side effects, and frequency of usage as a street drug.
Morphine is obtained from the latex of opium poppy seed pods. The crude opium contains a mixture of compounds. Morphine has long been used as a pain reliever and has played a curious role in medicine. In the 1800s, it was prescribed by doctors as a cure for alcoholism as it was considered a more benign addiction. It was also known as the “army disease” after the American Civil War when soldiers returned home with war injuries and subsequent morphine addiction.
The opioid oxycodone is synthesized from thebaine, another alkaloid found in opium. With morphine being so addictive, there was a consensus to not make morphine substitutes available in pill form. Another difference between oxycodone and morphine is that the latter drug is considered the “gold standard” for the treatment of patients with severe chronic illnesses. Very high doses have been found to prolong the life of seriously ill cancer patients. Morphine is also used in hospital settings to relieve pain after surgery.
Oxycodone and morphine differ in their mode of metabolism. Unlike morphine, oxycodone is metabolized by enzymes in the liver that detoxify a number of prescription drugs. This has several implications for the metabolism of this compound. Other drugs may interfere with the metabolism of oxycodone. There are also genetic differences in how efficiently these enzymes detoxify their targets, leading to metabolism that may either be too quick or too slow.
One benefit of oxycodone is that it has fewer side effects than morphine. The latter drug brings on a very strong feeling of pleasure and euphoria. There is pleasure after taking oxycodone, but fewer euphoric side effects than from taking morphine. This should cause oxycodone to be less addictive.
Street availability is another difference between oxycodone and morphine. Since morphine is so rarely prescribed for home use, it is not commonly sold on the street. There are large numbers of prescriptions filled for oxycodone in the United States. The drug is available in a slow-release form called OxyContin® that is highly popular with recreational drug users. There is a problem with teenagers stealing these pills from family medicine cabinets and then switching to heroin after they have gone to college.