Difference Drug And Medicine
4 min

What Is The Difference Between A Drug And Medicine?

4 min
Facts News

The difference between a drug and a medicine is frequently difficult. There are some easy to spot differences. However, particularly when it comes to herbal based medicine, the difference becomes more difficult. Such definitions also change with greater medical understanding of the impact of many of these substances.

The current debate over the difference between drugs and medicine is not a new one. It has been raging ever since the end of the 19th century. It became an issue when both the medical and pharmaceutical profession became organized entities. To some extent, it also dovetailed with the arrival of patent law both in Europe and in the United States. If a plant could be used as a “medicine” then it could not be patented.

On the other side of the equation, alcohol (for example) has also been used as “medicine.” That label also applies to substances which are today either “drugs” or “medicine.” In some cases, like opioids and amphetamines, not to mention LSD and cannabis, they can be both. For example, the recycling of news that Cary Grant submitted himself to LSD “therapy” in the 1950’s is coming at a time when micro-dosing LSD is coming back into focus as a treatment for severe depression and mood disorders.

People can also be “addicted” to both prescription medication and drugs. Medicines can have negative effects (if not side effects).

Essentially the distinction between “drugs” and “medicine” are defined and shaped by political and medical decisions. These change over time.



Broadly speaking, medicine can be any external substance that is administered to ease suffering. It does not have to be manufactured. This is true of many plant-based medications, even if they do not require a prescription. For example, the Aloe plant is well known to sooth and heal burns.

Prescription medication is slightly different. This implies that the medication is powerful enough to cause harmful effects and must be taken in moderation. It also implies taking it under medical supervision. In most countries, there is a federal “scheduling” of such drugs. This includes cannabis, cocaine, amphetamines, heroin and opioids. It also includes other drugs which are made in labs for a specific purpose.

This understanding and definition can also change over time. Cannabis, for example, or more specifically cannabinoids, are about to be rescheduled in most major countries. However with the exception of Germany and Uruguay the drug remains a Schedule I drug in every other country.



A drug by contrast, is a substance that is used for pleasure and recreation. It could have harmful side effects. Nicotine and alcohol are both drugs, for example. They are also both legal. Cannabis, cocaine, heroin and other “drugs” remain illegal. On the other extreme, there are beginning to be countries where the entire debate is changing. Portugal has led the world on decriminalizing recreational use of all drugs.

Even more confusing is how chemically similar substances are labelled, sold and made available. For example, heroin is illegal. However opioid-based prescription painkillers are not only legal, they are also causing a modern day heroin and opioid addiction and overdose problem.


Beyond prescription, side effects, and other similarities, there is one other broad difference between something labelled a drug or medication. Medication is ostensibly used for a specific therapeutic purpose. This is one of the many reasons that cannabis use is so difficult to define. If a “recreational user” lights up regularly, are they really using the drug for pleasure? Or are they, as many people do, self-diagnosing an undiagnosed medical problem?


The difference in effects between “drugs” and “medication” are also hard to define. Clearly medicine is intended to allow healing to begin. However, particularly on the psychological front, what is healing? If LSD or cannabis is used successfully with a doctor to treat chronic depression, is that medical use of these drugs? The answer of course is clearly yes.

This means that “trips” and euphoric feelings can, in fact, be used for therapeutic, medicinal purposes. Certified medications, on the other hand, as those used for schizophrenia, can make a patient become obese.

The ultimate bottom line here? If the effects are, in sum, positive and add to the health and well-being of the person taking them, they could be medicine. However just because something is medicine does not mean there are no negative side-effects.

negative side effects

Both prescription medication and drugs can be addictive. That said, the difference in “addiction” versus compliance is another discussion that also enters the room at this point. And both issues apply to drug use as well as to prescription meds.


Many supposed “party drugs” are being re-examined in the new century for their therapeutic uses. And most of them have been around for awhile. These days all of them are under the microscope. The supposed “answers” about mental illness, addiction and pain are all being re-examined.



Just in case you missed it, there is a global conversation underway right now about this very topic. Cannabis as medicine just became the law in Germany. It is legal in Canada. It is becoming legal in Australia, Ireland and other places. The roles of cannabinoids within the newly discovered endocannabinoid system are already rocking established medicine.



Magic Mushrooms, as they are also known, are also nothing new. Like cannabis, they were used in both religious rituals and for healing for millennia before the 20th century. Like many of the other “drugs” however, they have been studied as medicine. The last great focus on shrooms was during the 1950’s and 60’s. They were originally studied for people suffering from depression. They were also used for treatment of PTSD or shell shock as the disorder was known then. However after the beginning of the drug war, shrooms faded into niche party circuits. These days, they are being studied again for treating psychological conditions including depression and PTSD.



This drug made out of a vine native to Peru is also frequently called yagé. Ayahuasca has been studied to treat depression, anxiety and addiction. Ongoing research into the mental health aspects of this substance are ongoing at Johns Hopkins in the U.S.. Roland Griffiths, the researcher who began to restart interest in the drug wrote that it was “amazing” how the substance positively impacted how users feel. “Nearly all the participants reported significant positive changes in attitude and behaviour,” he wrote. “Those changes were also observed by the participants’ friends, family, and colleagues. It was remarkable.”



One of the next big battles over drug policy may well be over medical access to mescaline. Mescaline is a naturally occurring psychedelic alkaloid that comes from the Peyote cactus (among other cacti). Used for centuries by native tribes to enhance spirituality, the drug creates profound experiences for all who experience it. Because of its now illegal status, it has not been properly studied for use in certain psychiatric conditions. Certain conditions like depression and alcoholism might be treated by medical use of it. As a result, this drug could also be the "next" LSD when it comes to micro-dosing.


  Marguerite Arnold  

Written by: Marguerite Arnold
With years of writing experience under her belt, Marguerite dedicates her time to exploring the cannabis industry and the developments of the legalisation movement.

      Find out about our writers  

Read more about
Facts News
Search in categories