Hard And Soft Drugs
3 min

The Classification Of Hard And Soft Drugs

3 min
News Research

It is easy to assume that the terms "hard" and "soft" drugs refer to the safety of a particular substance. However, some scientific research may categorise a drug based more on its legal status as opposed to its addictive and toxic properties.

When seeking to classify and rank drugs, many of us are familiar with the terms “hard drugs” and “soft drugs.” These titles are often used to characterise certain aspects of a drug, such as its addictive nature, toxicity and the severity of its physiological and psychological effects.

When thinking of hard drugs, those that first spring to mind may include heroin, cocaine, meth and opium. Soft drugs usually refer to cannabis, some forms of alcohol and perhaps low-dose pain killers and nicotine. Most of the time, the classification of these drugs are entirely subjective and heavily influenced by government policy, which may very well be ignorant to scientific research. So what are the real definitions and differences between soft and hard drugs?


Researchers have examined the distinctions between “hard” and “soft” drugs. Although the terms are used a lot by laymen and within scientific circles, there still seems to be some confusion existing between these definitions. A scientific paper published within The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse took a close look at what defines these classifications.

The authors of the paper state that “Precise terminology and definitions are important components of scientific language. Although the terms ‘hard drugs’ and ‘soft drugs’ are used widely by professionals, neither the International Classification of Diseases nor the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual classify psychoactive substances in the categories ‘hard’ and ‘soft.’”

The authors set the objective of reviewing the scientific literature in order to analyse the use of the terms “hard drugs” and “soft drugs” within recent publications to identify the consensus in labelling a psychoactive drug as one or the other. The researchers examined a total of 334 articles that were published between 2011 and 2015. They decided to use a total of 132 of the articles that were regarded as relevant for the final review.


The researchers found that a total of 124 of the articles used the term “hard drugs,” with 84.7 percent providing examples of substances that were classified as being “hard.” A total of 40 articles invoked the term “soft drugs,” of which 90.9 percent provided examples of substances considered “soft.” Close examination of these results displayed that the defining lines between these classifications remained blurred within the scientific literature. The authors of the paper actually state that these terms should be avoided if they are not used clearly and precisely.


Soft Drugs

Despite the logical conclusion reached by the aforementioned research, it is still interesting to observe exactly which drugs are placed within each category. Out of all of the articles examined by researchers, cannabis was referred to as a soft drug most frequently. This makes sense considering that the potential for physical addiction and toxicity are known to be very low. However, the blurry line occurs quite profoundly with alcohol and tobacco/nicotine being the other substances largely included in the soft drug category. This is indeed an example of a drug's status being highly distorted by its legal status, rather than its true effects on the body.


Hard Drugs

Upon review, cocaine was the drug most often cited as being “hard,” with heroin coming in as a close second. This classification makes logical sense, both in terms of toxicity and potential for abuse. As these drugs are highly illegal in many countries, this classification could also fall in line with how these drugs are perceived in political spheres. Other drugs that have been described as “hard” include opioids in general, amphetamines, MDMA, stimulants, benzodiazepines and more.

Hallucinogens such as psilocybin mushrooms and LSD have been mentioned as “hard drugs.” This classification once again reinforces the problematic grey areas. These substances are indeed illegal in many regions of the world, which could make them so called “hard drugs” in the eyes of government administrators. However, these drugs are not associated with addictive tendencies or high toxicity. In fact, magic mushrooms are often said to be one of the safest recreational drugs.


Further research gives insight into the blurry line that is present between these classifications. It does appear that a prejudice may exist regarding the legal classification of drugs and the effect they have upon bodily systems in terms of addiction and toxicity.

For example, research published within the journal Scientific Reports ranks drugs based on the risk of mortality associated with their use. This study falls in line with the previous research in regard to ranking cannabis as the most safe substance, anecdotally confirming its “soft” drug status. However, this research is potentially in contrast to that stated above which shows alcohol to be the deadliest drug, along with nicotine. Heroin and cocaine were also classed as some of the deadliest drugs.

Based on this study, it is important to take drug classifications with a grain of salt. Conduct more extensive research to determine whether a drug’s class is based on scientific study or political ideology.


  Luke Sumpter  

Written by: Luke Sumpter
Luke Sumpter is a journalist based in the United Kingdom, specialising in health, alternative medicine, herbs and psychedelic healing. He has written for outlets such as, Medical Daily and The Mind Unleashed, covering these and other areas.

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