Rooted in President Reagan’s War on Drugs, the shifting definition of “narcotic” defies simple explanation. It’s tempting to slap on a cold, clinical answer like, “Narcotics bind to opioid receptors!” and be done with it. That would restrict narcotics to drugs like OxyContin, Vicodin, Norco, heroin, and other lesser-known opioids. After all, that’s a traditional way for physicians to classify narcotics, right? In that limited scope of the term, the popular benzodiazepine Xanax wouldn’t qualify. But thanks to our pesky penchant for mental shortcuts known as heuristics and the imprecise language of US narcotic classifications, the full-scoped answer to the question Is Xanax narcotic? isn’t so simple. Language evolves. The nebulous term “narcotic” is not black and white. One could easily argue that, effectively speaking, Xanax functions as a socially acceptable narcotic.
Xanax as a Benzodiazepine (Medical Tranquilizer)
Although Xanax affects each person differently, this benzodiazepine acts essentially as a prescription tranquilizer. Benzos are a schedule IV controlled substance. According to the Center for Substance Abuse Research:
Each benzodiazepine displays one or more of the following drug actions: anxiety relief, hypnotic, muscle relaxant, anti-convulsant, or an amnesiatic (mild memory-loss inducer). Due to their sedative properties, benzodiazepines have a high potential for abuse, especially when used with other depressants such as alcohol or opiates.
As one of the most commonly prescribed depressant medications in the US today, most people are prescribed Xanax for anxiety. This benzo’s status as a prescription remedy grants Xanax a certain credibility and safety in the eyes of the public. We trust doctors and psychiatrists because, presumably, they have been through years of medical schooling. That makes Xanax safe, right?
We hope it doesn’t come as a surprise that medical doctors prescribe narcotic medications all the time. So the question becomes an issue of defining the difference between narcotic and non-narcotic medication.
Defining Narcotic: Google Offers Information, Not Understanding
Addictive chemicals fester at a unique crossroad of human biology and behavior. On one hand, if you ask a lab coat pharmacist with no background in psychology, the basic chemical structures of various drug classes are pretty black-and-white. A basic Google search reveals the molecular differences between benzos and opiates. No surprise here: they’re different! And somehow, seeing those little diagrams of nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon atoms with hydrocarbon side chains trick us into thinking we understand more than we really do. If you only ask the medical community, sure, benzos like Xanax are not chemical narcotics. But the first page of Google doesn’t have a monopoly on the truth.
The very act of searching for information makes people think they’ve learned something, when in fact they’re more likely to be immersed in yet more data they do not understand. This happens because after enough time surfing, people no longer can distinguish between things that may have flashed before their eyes and things they actually know. — Tom Nichols, “The Death of Expertise”
Is Xanax Narcotic? Check Etymology
If you live in the United States, your confirmation bias nudges you toward information that suggests Xanax is not a chemical narcotic. If you live outside the US, you may pay more attention to the word’s ancient Greek etymology.
That’s the nature of language: it starts with a basic meaning, and then evolves to adopt subjective ancillary ideas. The key operator here is subjective. In our culture (this article is begin written from California), the US media’s coverage of the War on Drugs and the opiate epidemic have permeated our collective consciousness. So in our popular opinion, only opiates like heroin, oxy, and Vicodin are narcotic. But depending on what expert you ask, Xanax’s tranquilizer class (benzodiazepine) can absolutely qualify as narcotic as well.
“Narcotic” Has Multiple Definitions
When seeking experts in the medical community, consider the difference between a medical doctor and a psychiatrist. Due to its involvement in the US opiate epidemic, the medical community has sequestered “narcotic” to only include drugs derived from poppies. But consider this: Purdue Pharma kindled the fatal opiate crisis in the late 90s when it began pushing OxyContin. The US medical community played a huge role in the proliferation of prescription opiate addiction. It’s in their best interest to isolate the term “narcotic” to an epidemic they helped create.
Narcotics in Treatment
As a question of addictive properties, Xanax is hands-down one of the most commonly abused prescription drugs today. Most treatment psychologists, therapists, counselors, and case managers will testify that the tranquilizing properties of benzos like Xanax trigger problematic behaviors in addicts. So if we scale back to the root meaning of narcotic (“to make numb”), the term would absolutely include Xanax. We’ve also included individual opinions of licensed addiction therapists (see next section).
The legal definition of narcotic depends on what country you live in and what branch of government you ask. According to the UN, there is no internationally recognized legal definition of a narcotic. In the US, the federal judiciary branch’s supremacy in separation of powers says that cocaine is a narcotic per precedence set by the federal case US v. Stieren. Cocaine is clearly not an opiate, but it is a Schedule II controlled substance. Xanax, a Schedule IV benzo, is also classified under the FDA’s Controlled Substances Act (1970). Legally speaking, the definition of “narcotic” in the US has (and will continue to) change.
Is Xanax Narcotic? Input from Psy.D., MFTs, and More
As a substance abuse treatment center, we battle on the front lines of prescription drug abuse in the US. It is not a violation of HIPAA to say that a majority of our clients abuse Xanax in conjunction with their drug of choice. Despite its status as a schedule IV controlled substance, Xanax is as widely available as it is abused. So, is Xanax narcotic or not? We’ve interviewed highly qualified and experienced New Start Recovery staff for their individual opinions on the issue (see below).
Sara Tousi, M.S.W., ACSW:
“Xanax is in the Benzodiazepine class of drugs and is used to treat disorders such as panic attacks and anxiety, basically “to numb your feelings.” Over time you can develop Xanax addiction after chronic use of Xanax. As a clinical therapist I have witnessed, too many times, clients seeking treatment due to Xanax addiction. These clients suffered from panic attracts and/or anxiety and began to use Xanax to help diminish their unwanted symptoms. Unfortunately, these clients, after chronic use of Xanax, developed addiction to this drug. As a clinical therapist, I have witnessed these clients going through an extremely physically and emotionally painful detox period. To me Xanax is a narcotic, as it has the same effect, it is addictive, and coming off the drug is very painful.”
Basharat Khan, M.A., MFTi, PCCi:
“It goes back to how we define the word “narcotic” in today’s world. The word itself holds two definitions, one medical (simply stating it is NOT a narcotic due to ingredients, etc.), while the other simply associating it with the negative connotations influenced by the presence of popular illicit drugs that belong to the same group. So what is it? Although there isn’t a definite answer to it, I would like to tie it to the simple act of perception. Although the substance is not a derivative of poppies, it is still a controlled substance. The drug causes a feeling of euphoria, thus it can necessarily be determined a narcotic in certain terms, rather than the medical definition. Nonetheless, I would like to make it a point to understand that although the FDA has not tagged Xanax as a narcotic, the drug still holds potential for abuse due to the effects felt from it; albeit, low potential, but a rising potential altogether.”
Public Perception of Benzos Versus Opiates
We mentioned earlier that the US medical community fueled the opiate crisis. This has largely shaped public opinion of opiate medication (OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet, etc) as the classic definition of “narcotic.” But benzodiazepines, opiates’ less famously abused tranquilizer cousins, present their own set of problems. Have you ever asked yourself why painkillers get a worse rap than tranquilizers when they are actually more deadly to detox from?
Too often when we are faced with a seemingly simple question like whether Xanax is narcotic, we allow Google’s search algorithms to form our opinions prematurely. Narcotics are categorically complex. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, please consider seeking help. Our addiction counselors are available 24/7 by phone or text: 855-737-7363