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The Differences Between Hard and Soft Drugs

John C. Umhau, MD, MPH, CPE is board-certified in addiction medicine and preventative medicine. He is the medical director at Alcohol Recovery Medicine. For over 20 years Dr. Umhau was a senior clinical investigator at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

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The terms “soft drugs” and “hard drugs” are arbitrary terms with little to no clear criteria or scientific basis.

Typically, the term “hard drug” has been used to categorize drugs that are addictive and injectable, notably, heroin, cocaine, and crystal methamphetamine. Marijuana is usually the only drug included within the category of “soft” drugs, although some people include nicotine and alcohol in this category because of their legal status for use by adults, and their relative social acceptability compared to illegal drugs.

The term “soft drug” is sometimes used interchangeably with the term gateway drug, a term that is equally inaccurate.  

“Soft” vs. “Hard” Drugs

Use of the terms “hard” and “soft” drugs raises more questions than it answers. Is a drug only “hard” when it is injected? Surely heroin, crack, and meth is not “soft” drugs when they are smoked. With these drugs, it is the purity, amount, frequency of use, social context, and route of administration that typically determines how harmful it is.

The implication that marijuana is a soft or relatively harmless drug is being increasingly questioned.

There are several different types of marijuana, with hashish and hash oil traditionally being thought of as harder forms of cannabis. However, stronger strains of weed are being genetically engineered and longer-term harms are becoming more apparent.

Criminology research shows that few drug offenders limit themselves to only one drug, bringing into question the idea that drug users are able to limit themselves to a single “soft” drug, although there is a clear pattern among this population of progression from marijuana to heroin.  

Categorization Challenges

If we were to categorize drugs according to how hard or soft they are, several drugs would be particularly difficult to categorize. Hallucinogens, such as magic mushrooms and LSD, and the rave drug ecstasy, are generally not considered by users to be addictive — although some research tells a different story.  

But given the lower incidence of addiction to these drugs and the fact that they are taken orally rather than injected, would they be considered soft drugs? As the risks associated with bad trips and flashbacks are well-documented, and with their status as controlled drugs, it is unlikely that experts would support the view that they are soft drugs.

And which category would prescription medications, such as tranquilizers and painkillers, go into? We don’t usually hear the term “hard drugs” applied to these medications, even when they are abused, yet some are chemically similar to heroin, while others are among the most addictive drugs around and the most dangerous to withdraw from. So the soft drug category doesn’t fit for them, either.

A Word From Verywell

The terms “hard drugs” and “soft drugs” don’t tell you much about the drugs being referred to. They are used mostly for dramatic effect and to get across the speaker’s perceptions about the relative harmfulness of one drug compared to another.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Learn about the distinction between soft and hard drugs, plus find out about the implications of using these terms to describe drug use.

Drugs of Abuse: What’s the Difference Between Meth, Heroin and Xanax?

Drug abuse has plagued the American continent since the 1800s, when morphine, heroin and cocaine were hailed for their amazing curative properties. In the 1960s many new and exotic drugs, such as hallucinogens, benzodiazepines, amphetamines and marijuana, became readily available and the street drug trend became a booming industry. People from all walks of life are paying big money to purchase street drugs illegally. Housewives, executives, and lawyers are among some of the cash purchasers. Buying drugs off the street is as easy as sending a text message to the local neighborhood dealer and having him or her deliver your drugs at your doorstep in exchange for cash. There are so many drugs of abuse out on the market that it is not uncommon for the general public to mistake methamphetamine for heroin and Percocet for Xanax. Pharmaceutical drugs that are used as prescriptions are often mistaken for street drugs that are made in illegally in an underground lab.

Meth abuse does not create a physical dependency, but it quickly develops into a vicious psychological addiction. The quick and intense euphoric feelings that are felt and the changes in the brain lead the abuser to have a mental dependency on meth. There are signs that are exhibited when a person is high on methamphetamines. These are some examples of the signs:

  • Euphoria
  • Psychosis
  • Seizures
  • Depression
  • Aggressive and violent behavior
  • Severe dental problems
  • Dramatic weight loss
  • Dilation of pupils
  • Disturbed sleep patterns
  • Nausea

Another consequence of using meth is the onset of obsessive behaviors. People may begin to participate in repetitive activities and behaviors for prolonged periods of time as a result of meth destroying the brain’s inhibitory control.

Paranoia and aggression also often result from meth use, as does the onset of hallucinations and delusions, including feeling things such as having bugs crawling under their skin and hearing voices that are not really there.

Meth (Methamphetamine) is a powerful and intense synthetic stimulant that is used to reach a quick “high” (an intense euphoric reaction to a drug). It is not considered to be physically addictive, but it is exceptionally psychologically addictive. When injected or smoked, the meth immediately produces a rush of dopamine (dopamine controls the brain’s pleasure and reward centers), which is released in the brain and causes an intense high or “flash.” The effects are short-lived, only a few minutes, but it is considered to be tremendously pleasurable. It is a white, bitter-tasting, odorless crystalline powder that dissolves easily in alcohol or water. Methamphetamine is a synthetic drug produced in underground laboratories, basements, kitchens or anywhere that has a stove a few household ingredients. Some of the standard elements that compose meth include drain cleaner, antifreeze, rat poison, battery acid, and kerosene.

Opioids are also known as prescription painkillers and are derived from the opium poppy plants. Heroin, Percocet, and Lortab are common opioids but often get confused with methamphetamines even though they are in two completely different categories. They are only prescribed for chronic and intense pain. Post surgical patients, individuals on hospice and patients undergoing cancer treatments are rightfully prescribed opioids to ease their pain however this overly addicting class of prescription medication is overprescribed and sold on the back market, resulting in the well-known opioid epidemic which affects five million individuals in the United States each year and is responsible for 17,000 deaths each year in the United States. Opioid overdose is responsible for opioid related deaths however opioid withdrawal, although not deadly, is responsible for the opioid dependence; the reason why individuals keep using opioids is to prevent the gruesome withdrawal side effects such as bone pain, nausea, diarrhea, and intense stomach cramps.

Opioids can be divided into naturally occurring, semi-synthetic and synthetic opioids. Naturally occurring opioids are extracted from the opium poppy whereas semi-synthetic opioids use a chemical process after extracting natural opioids. Synthetic opioids are made using complete chemical synthetic with no natural ingredients involved. The following include the most abused opioids used fro pain relief in the United States:

  • Morphine (naturally occurring opioid)
  • Codeine (naturally occurring opioid)
  • Heroin (semi-synthetic opioid)
  • Oxycodone (semi-synthetic opioid)
  • Oxymorphone (semi-synthetic opioid)
  • Hydrocodone (semi-synthetic opioid)
  • Buprenorphine (synthetic opioid)
  • Methadone (synthetic opioid)
  • Fentanyl (synthetic opioid)

Different opioids affect the body at different rates. Some are fast acting meaning their effects take place in a short amount of time and are then eliminated from the body soon after where, medium and long acting opiates take longer to produce effects and stay in the body for a longer duration of time. Also there are different strengths depending on the specific type of opioid. For example fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin. Regardless of the potency and duration of action, the signs and symptoms of opioid intoxication are all the same and are listed below:

  • Drowsiness
  • Pupillary constriction
  • Slurred speech
  • Constipation
  • Respiratory depression (slow shallow breathing)
  • Stupor
  • Coma

Benzodiazepines commonly referred to, as “nerve pills” are commonly prescribed to individuals with anxiety related disorders and seizures but have become substances of abuse over the last few decades. Xanax, Valium, and Ativan are well known benzodiazepines that are often abused in order to “take the edge off” or help induce sleep. Benzodiazepines can result in death both by overdose and withdrawal and as a result are considered extremely dangerous, especially when taken with alcohol, which acts on the same receptors as benzodiazepines. Although overdose can occur from benzodiazepines, withdrawal from this class of medication can be deadly and therefore it is important to consult a medical professional if you are trying to wean yourself benzodiazepines. Like alcohol, the immediate cessation from benzodiazepines can result in seizures and therefore a slow taper must be initiated.

Disclaimer

This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of mental health disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.

Drugs of Abuse: What’s the Difference Between Meth, Heroin and Xanax? Drug abuse has plagued the American continent since the 1800s, when morphine, heroin and cocaine were hailed for their