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Is Neurontin (Gabapentin) a “Narcotic”?

Neurontin (Gabapentin) is a drug that has been on the market since 1993 for which it was initially approved to treat epileptic seizures as an adjunct.  It has anticonvulsant properties, but is also considered to have analgesic effects and is sometimes helpful for pain reduction.  Approximately 10 years after Gabapentin’s initial approval to treat epilepsy, it was found effective for the treatment of neuropathic pain.

Despite the fact that Neurontin is solely approved for the treatment of epilepsy and neuropathic pain, many doctors prescribe it “off-label” for other conditions including: opiate withdrawal, alcohol withdrawal, anxiety disorders, chronic pain, restless-leg syndrome (RLS), and even hot flashes.  It is estimated that the majority of prescriptions for Gabapentin are for the treatment of off-label conditions.  The rampant off-label use of Gabapentin eventually lead to a lawsuit against the marketers of this drug for a $430 million settlement.

There has been an increase in the recreational use of Gabapentin over the past decade.  The drug elicits an effect on GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter.  Although it is thought to be similar to benzodiazepines, the drug is not considered a “controlled-substance” – making it easier to obtain by recreational users.  The availability of Gabapentin among recreational drug users has lead some to ask whether Gabapentin is a “narcotic.”

Is Neurontin (Gabapentin) a narcotic?

To determine whether Neurontin is a narcotic, let’s decipher the informal definition of “narcotic.”  According to a general dictionary, a “narcotic” is considered:

A drug or substance affecting mood or behavior and sold for nonmedical purposes – especially an illegal one. 

Does Neurontin affect mood or behavior and is it sold for nonmedical purposes (e.g. intoxication)?  Let’s break it down.

  • Neurontin (Gabapentin) and mood: Many users report that Gabapentin has a “mood boosting” effect. Due to its mechanism of action, most people report feeling noticeably more calm and relaxed upon ingestion of Gabapentin.  Though relaxation may not be interpreted as a mood change per se, the act of physiological relaxation can certainly influence or alter mood.  Recreational users taking the drug at doses exceeding 600 mg report noticing a subtle degree of euphoria.
  • Neurontin (Gabapentin) and behavior: While Gabapentin may not have a noticeable effect on behavior, many individuals report that the drug lowers inhibitions, making them more social. This may result in riskier behavior when taken at high, supratherapeutic doses.  An individual may become noticeably more calm in their demeanor and actions upon ingestion of Gabapentin.
  • Sold for nonmedical purposes: The majority of Gabapentin sales are for medical purposes such as neuropathic pain and epilepsy. That said, the drug may be attained by an individual for an off-label condition and sold to friends, family members, or strangers.  The selling of the drug is done by individuals to make money, and the buyer purchases the drug often with the intention of getting “high.”
  • Legal status: Although Gabapentin is considered a “legal” prescription drug when attained via doctor’s prescription, it is considered illegal to possess without a prescription. That said, it isn’t considered a “controlled-substance” and is therefore easier to obtain.  It is even easier to obtain than its successor Lyrica; a similar drug with greater potency and a Schedule V classification.

Based on the informal dictionary definition, Neurontin (Gabapentin) could be interpreted as fitting the criteria of a “narcotic.”  The drug is certainly capable of altering both mood and behavior, and is commonly sold for nonmedical purposes (e.g. intoxication).  When the drug is attained via a doctor’s prescription and used correctly, it is not regarded as a “narcotic.”

Why Neurontin (Gabapentin) is not formally known as a “narcotic”…

The word narcotic is derived from a Greek term “narkō” which translates to “make numb.”  Many people use the term narcotic in a broad sense to describe any psychoactive substance, particularly those that are capable of inducing sleep (i.e. hypnotics).  In the United States, most individuals think of opioids and opioid-deriviatives when they hear “narcotics.”

Opioids like heroin, morphine, and synthetic formulations like hydrocodone are regarded as narcotics.  Most addictive drugs associated with significant psychological and/or physical dependence and/or “controlled-substances” may be considered narcotics.  Due to the fact that Gabapentin is not associated with addiction nor dependence, it is not commonly referenced as a “narcotic.”

While some would argue that the drug is addictive and dependence (especially psychological), most literature suggests otherwise; hence its non-inclusion in the list of “controlled-substances.”  That said, some have suggested that the closely-related drug Pregabalin (Lyrica) is a controlled-substance and therefore Gabapentin should also be.

United States Legal Definition of “Narcotic”: Does Neurontin (Gabapentin) fit the criteria?

No. Gabapentin does not fit the necessary legal criteria to be classified as a “narcotic” in the United States.  The legal criteria for “narcotic drugs” in the United States are: any substances totally prohibited or used in violation of governmental regulation (e.g. morphine).  For example, morphine can be used under medical supervision and considered legal.

In a hospital setting, morphine would be considered a legal narcotic.  When obtained and administered outside of a formal hospital setting without medical consent, morphine would be regarded as an illicit narcotic. Unlike morphine, Gabapentin is not regarded in the United States as a “controlled-substance.”

Therefore it should NOT be regarded as a “narcotic” according to the legal definition.  The penalties associated with unauthorized possession and/or sale of a narcotic substance are far more harsh than those associated with the unauthorized possession and/or sale of a prescription drug.

Penalties for Nonmedical Possession or Sales of Neurontin (Gabapentin)

Should you get caught with possession of controlled-substances that are narcotics, the associated penalties are often extreme and include: long-term jail time (depending on the “schedule” of drug) and thousands of dollars in fines.  Since Gabapentin is not classified as a controlled-substance, the associated penalties associated with unauthorized possession and/or sale of the drug is less severe.  That said, you will certainly not get off scot-free if you get caught facilitating recreational use of Gabapentin.

In some states, unauthorized possession of prescription drugs like Gabapentin is considered a “Class B” misdemeanor.”  This is associated with a fine and a short-term stint in jail.  Should you get caught selling Gabapentin, you could get charged with a “Class E” felony, characterized by significant fines and extended jail time.

Is Gabapentin a Narcotic? Formal vs. Informal Context.

There is significant variation among definitions of the term “narcotic.”  Some people refer to “narcotics” strictly as analgesics or pain-relieving drugs – specifically the opioids.  Others only refer to narcotics as illicit substances that have no accepted medical uses (e.g. heroin).  Based on formal interpreations, Gabapentin is not a narcotic.  From an informal perspective with varying definitions of the term “narcotic,” some may perceive Gabapentin as a narcotic.

Formal context: Based on the formal definition of narcotic in the United States, Neurontin (Gabapentin) is not considered a narcotic.  The drug is not subject to significant abuse and isn’t formally associated with significant physical nor psychological dependence.  Therefore it is available via prescription and isn’t considered a “controlled-substance.”

  • Lack of dependence: There isn’t any significant evidence to suggest that Gabapentin causes dependence. Most “narcotics” are considered opioids with high levels of physical and psychological dependence.
  • Low abuse potential: The drug has a low potential of abuse compared to other narcotics. In other words, users aren’t usually motivated to take more than recommended by their doctor.  This is due to the fact that the drug does not produce a significant “high” – especially when used taken at the minimal effective dose.
  • Non-controlled substance: Narcotics are considered “controlled-substances” in the United States. Gabapentin is not even a controlled-substance and therefore should not be regarded as a narcotic.
  • Overdose unlikely: It is possible to overdose on Gabapentin, but the potential is unlikely. The drug doesn’t produce as intoxicating of a “high” as traditional narcotic substances.  This means most people will take the drug as medically directed and are unlikely to overdose.
  • Prescription drug: Gabapentin is available via prescription and can be refilled by a doctor electronically without another doctor visit. Other controlled-narcotic substances require a physical “hard copy” signature by both patient and doctor and are non-refillable.
  • Tolerance less common: While it is certainly possible to develop tolerance to the effects of Gabapentin over time, the tolerance is not regarded as having a rapid-onset. Drugs like heroin and morphine are associated with rapid-tolerance development.

Informal context: If the definition of narcotic is stretched a bit from legal context, Neurontin (Gabapentin) could be considered a narcotic.  When taken at high doses, it clearly produces an intoxicating effect characterized by drowsiness, impaired coordination, and physiological relaxation.

  • Analgesic effect: The drug is thought to elicit subtle analgesic effects as evidenced by those who take the drug on a postoperative basis following surgery. While the analgesic effect isn’t as profound as opioids, it could still be considered to have pain-relieving properties.
  • Dependence: Although medical literature suggests that dependence upon Gabapentin isn’t common, many users report that they cannot function without the drug. Those undergoing Gabapentin withdrawal (especially from high doses) report both physical and psychological symptoms associated with impaired functioning.
  • Intoxicating: When ingested at doses exceeding 600 mg, the drug can have an intoxicating effect. While the bioavailability of the drug is thought to be reduced at high doses, this does not prevent intoxication, especially when taken at supratherapeutic doses exceeding 3000 mg.
  • Mood altering: Despite the fact that Gabapentin may not alter the mood of every user, many people report feeling more positive after taking Gabapentin. In other words, a subtle mood boost or even a mood stabilization may be reported.
  • Recreational use: The drug has a clear appeal to some recreational users that take the drug with the intention of attaining a “high.” This high is reported as being pleasant in that it is relaxing and improves mood.

Verdict: Neurontin (Gabapentin) is NOT a narcotic

Legally, Gabapentin is not considered a narcotic.  It is not a controlled substance, has a low potential for abuse, and is not medically associated with dependence.  While the drug is capable of acting similarly to benzodiazepines (e.g. Valium) in that it affects neurotransmission of GABA, its effect is different and it is considerably less potent.

The intoxicating potential of Gabapentin pales in comparison to federally classified narcotics like heroin.  Most recreational drug users aren’t seeking out Gabapentin over the legitimate narcotics like morphine, hydrocodone, oxycodone, etc.  At higher doses, the bioavailability of Gabapentin decreases, making it tougher to abuse and ultimately safer than federally classified narcotics.

Do you consider Neurontin (Gabapentin) a narcotic?

If you have experience using Gabapentin, do you think it should be classified as a narcotic?  What about a “Schedule V” controlled-substance like its successor Pregabalin?  Have you found its effects to be similar to any narcotics and/or controlled-substances?  If so, feel free to share which specific substances you’ve found most similar to Gabapentin.

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{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Michael E. Harrington October 30, 2015, 9:56 am

    I have a friend who I believe is addicted to the drug Gabapentin! Should I be concerned for my safety or his?

  • Kat February 29, 2016, 9:18 pm

    I am in the throes of withdrawal from Gabapentin. I am not suicidal. I was prescribed this drug (that should be considered as a narcotic immediately) for my pain as I have had back problems and am approaching a surgery. I am under 45 years old and I finally had a doctor that shook his head at the use of Gabapentin. I asked him to wean me off. I suffer from such abdominal pain, nausea, headaches, itching and the need to cry more than necessary.

    I can say this, this withdrawal includes sweating, and sleeplessness in addition to anxiety. My heart goes out to those who take more than I was prescribed. I take two (2) 600mg twice a day. I was told to up the dose by two separate doctors to 3,000mg. I declined this advice and I am lucky for it. I was told I could get through this withdrawal in 4 days. I’m sick, fatigued and I have no appetite.

    I’ve had to withdraw from roxycodone after my total knee replacement and the symptoms are exact in nature. My belief? The laws have become so stringent related to opiate medication prescriptions that doctors are easily able to write for Gabapentin as it has not been classified as a narcotic. It is no different in the sense of withdrawal.

    I found when I missed a dose of two, I suffered no additional pain, such as missing a dose of 10/325 Norco, however the same symptoms occur. Good luck to those that feel they need Gabapentin, but don’t start it if you can avoid it, sincerely, Kat.

  • Caroline Sylvester March 22, 2016, 3:58 pm

    I am addicted to gabapentin without my knowledge. I had no idea what was about to happen to me when I forgot to take them.

  • Peggy A Woods April 17, 2016, 4:03 am

    I’m on my second day and feel like I’ve taken a valium. Don’t know if I will be able to function at my job.

  • Cheryl June 22, 2016, 9:36 pm

    I have been on gabapentin for about eight months now. I have a severed nerve in my back which causes me great pain. I have been out for three days now, due to a mix up in the doctors office. I feel horrible. I feel as if I have allegories, with the runny nose and the eyes itching. I am also having the night and day sweats that have been talked about. I can not see going through this yet another day. Had I known what I know now about this drug, I would have dealt with the pain in a different manner. This is bad news.

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