I was watching a documentary about the Oxy pipeline from Florida to Kentucky this weekend where a sheriff made the claim that Oxycontin was pharmaceutical-grade heroin. This is not the first time I had heard this claim but I assumed they were just using hyperbole. This sheriff claimed that the narcotic ingredient of both drugs was the same. A search reveals several sites that equate the drugs and say that the dependence is interchangeable. But are they the same narcotic or do they simply bind to the same receptors due to their opiate source?

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    Heroin was/is a pharmaceutical product developed by Bayer as a substitute for morphine. So heroin is a pharmaceutical grade heroin.
    – Sam I Am
    Commented Nov 21, 2011 at 17:11
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    @Chad: heroine, crystal meth, ecstasy were all at one point Big Pharma products (of course with different names).
    – vartec
    Commented Nov 21, 2011 at 17:38
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    @vartec - But pharmaceutical drugs are controlled and doses fairly accurate. Street drugs are uncontrolled and can be cut with assorted toxins at varying dosages. I am not attacking anyone for what they make. I just wanted to know if it was actually the same thing or not... if the Wikipedia article below is correct then I guess it is.
    – Chad
    Commented Nov 21, 2011 at 19:23
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    I think the sheriff isn't making the claim from a chemical or biochemical perspective, but from the perspective of societal and law-enforcement impacts. Indeed, much of the spike in heroin use/abuse seems to be linked to pharmaceutical opioid addiction (specifically Oxycontin), with the users turning to heroin either because their prescriptions run out and get get renewed, or because the heroin is much cheaper. So from those users' perspective, the heroin is basically a lower-grade Oxycontin substitute. Commented Jul 12, 2017 at 14:01
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    @PoloHoleSet - I think he may have been mistaken, but his assertion was quite definitive that it was the same drug just at pharmaceutical grade instead of being cooked up and cut with what ever the cooker had handy.
    – Chad
    Commented Jul 12, 2017 at 15:16

1 Answer 1


Oxycontin (oxycodone) and heroin are both opioids, but not exactly the same substance. So, no, Oxycontin is not "pharmaceutical grade heroin" — thats an oversimplification to say they're both opioids (so they work in a similar way).

Just take a look at their molecular structures to see that they're similar, but different:



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    Any chance of getting a non-Wikipedia source for these diagrams? The Wikipedia image rights indicate that it is original work.
    – Chad
    Commented Nov 21, 2011 at 19:23
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    even if the images themselves are original work, this shouldn't be a problem. the images just visualize the molecular structure - wich itself is based on scientific evidence.
    – oezi
    Commented Nov 21, 2011 at 20:42
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    @Chad These images are produced by standard chemistry software. Paste in the INCHI or SMILES string to one of them and they should return the image.
    – Nick
    Commented Oct 4, 2012 at 17:13
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    This would be a better answer if it added a little on the reason why the structures have different effects (like the speed of action, and the distribution in the body). Subtle chemical changes make a big difference.
    – matt_black
    Commented Jul 12, 2017 at 8:57
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    The above chemical compound diagrams are a bit misleading if someone's not familiar with chemistry. While they're both technically correct (I'm assuming; haven't verified), they're drawn using different approaches that seem to suggest differences that aren't actually there. For example, on the right-most side of both images, there's a -CH_3 group, but, in the top one, it's explicitly labeled "-CH_3" while in the bottom one it's truncated to just a "-". This shorthand is technically valid, but could easily mislead people into thinking that those sections are different.
    – Nat
    Commented Jul 12, 2017 at 19:05

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