Xanax, also known as alprazolam, is a powerful drug that has anxiolytic and sedating properties. It belongs to the benzodiazepine group of psychoactive drugs. Furthermore, its original purpose was to combat the symptoms of anxiety and panic disorder.

First released in 1981 by Pfizer’s now subsidiary Upjohn Pharmaceuticals, the drug became extremely successful as it hit record-breaking sales. Three decades later, its popularity has hardly diminished being crowned as the most prescribed benzodiazepine in the United States. (1)

Sadly, alongside the drug’s growing popularity, came its inevitable abuse. Also during 2010, data has officially declared the drug as the most abused benzodiazepine drug in the market. Hence, many people started asking what kind of drug benzodiazepine really is.

Because of this reason, many are asking to reclassify Xanax alongside more abused drugs such as heroin, and morphine under the opiate group. However, before we could decide whether this would be the right decision, we must first answer many questions.

What Are Opiates?

The medical definition of opiate pertains to any drug whose components originated from the opium poppy plant (Papaver somniferum). This definition originally encompassed both natural and synthetic drugs before the term opioid replaced it. Thus, only natural alkaloids from the opium plant are now placed under the opiates group. (2)

Some of the most popular drugs that belong to the opiate category are morphine, codeine, and thebaine. The United States’ Food and Drug Administration consider all opiate drugs as having high abuse potentials. Most opiates belong to the Schedule II category under the Uniform Controlled Substances Act.

The 2015 World Drug Report of the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime estimated that about 13 to 20 million individuals worldwide had used opiates for recreational purposes.

Should We Categorize Xanax As An Opiate?

The widespread abuse of opiates worldwide has led to a misconception regarding the term. Majority of the population believe that the word opiates pertains to any drug that has a potential for abuse. Furthermore, some also believe that the term is exclusively for any type of illicit drug.

Nevertheless, Xanax does not belong to the opiates group. The reason for this is that Xanax does not come from the poppy plant; rather pharmaceutical companies manufacture it synthetically. Moreover, the process done to make the drug is not entirely available to the public.

As was mentioned in our introduction, Xanax belongs to the benzodiazepine group. This group is an entirely different group from opiates. Furthermore, no drug belongs to both groups at the same time since benzodiazepines work differently from opiates. (3)

Benzodiazepines Vs Opiates

Other than their source, one key difference between opiates and benzodiazepines are the receptors in the brain that they bind to. Benzodiazepines are anxiolytic and sedating drugs whose molecules bind to the GABA receptors in our brains to produce a mild tranquilizer effect.

Opiates, on the other hand, work by attaching themselves to the opioid receptors in our brains. Opioid receptors are a group of G protein-coupled receptors with inhibitory properties. Although most of them exist in the brain, some of them are in the spinal cord and digestive tracts.


Herper, M. (n.d.). America’s Most Popular Mind Medicines. Retrieved September 2, 2017, from Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/2010/09/16/prozac-xanax-valium-business-healthcare-psychiatric-drugs.html

“Opiate – Definitions from Dictionary.com”. dictionary.reference.com. Retrieved 2008-07-04.

Shorter E (2005). “Benzodiazepines”. A Historical Dictionary of Psychiatry. Oxford University Press. pp. 41–2