Drugs and drug vernacular can be confusing, and it’s particularly difficult to figure out which drugs are bad, and why, and which drugs are less bad, and why.
Of course, it’s not even that simple. Drugs are neither bad nor good, and most of the drugs that we openly condemn today – including cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine – are still used for medical treatments. Meanwhile, drugs we don’t usually consider “hard” fit every definition of the term more than other drugs do, including nicotine and alcohol, both of which are highly toxic in high doses while being very addictive, causing more deaths through intoxication, related diseases and overdose than any other drug in the country.
Don’t think of drugs as good and bad. Think of them as addictive and non-addictive. Drugs that are addictive can still be critical for the treatment of several diseases and mental disorders. Drugs that are non-addictive can still kill and be dangerous if used to often, causing liver damage or kidney failure.
What Are Hard Drugs, Soft Drugs, and Recreational Drugs?
Hard drugs are drugs that are considered addictive with a risk of causing an overdose, while soft drugs are not considered addictive, but may still be illegal. For example: you cannot feasibly overdose on cannabis or coffee, but you could overdose on synthetic cannabinoids and pure caffeine. One is addictive and the other is not – caffeine is mildly physically addictive and can induce withdrawal symptoms. Neither is considered a hard drug, by definition nor by common vernacular.
On the other hand, drugs like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine are often considered hard drugs. These are all very addictive, illegal outside of medical purposes, and high dosages can lead to organ failure and death by overdose. Alcohol fits the bill as well but is not typically known as a hard drug. Nevertheless, alcohol poisoning kills 2,200 Americans per year, and an estimated 15.1 million Americans have an alcohol use disorder (alcoholism).
Recreational drugs refer to drugs taken recreationally. Almost all drugs are used medicinally or for research – including hallucinogens, although they are not FDA-approved – so it is difficult to pinpoint drugs that are purely recreational. However, any drug can be taken recreationally.
This is usually because addictive prescription drugs – including stimulants prescribed for ADHD, sedatives prescribed for anxiety, analgesics like cocaine and codeine, and other addictive drugs – elicit a psychological reaction through the release or amplification of feel-good chemicals, such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. More so than any other substance or action, these drugs can calm people, make them feel happier, or put them in a state of bliss.
The side effect is that the brain begins to crave these drugs more and more with continued use, eventually leading to a crippling dependency on these drugs for everyday functioning, as well as a myriad of lasting – and in some cases permanent –damage to the body, brain, and mind.
Hard drugs, soft drugs, and recreational drugs all refer to addictive drugs, and they’re all dangerous in one way or another. While there is some general consensus to what’s a hard drug and what’s a soft drug, these categorizations aren’t very helpful to most. Addictiveness can vary, and “hard” and “soft” doesn’t accurately describe what makes some drugs more dangerous than others.
Some only consider drugs that are illegal but not addictive, like cannabis, DMT and LSD, to be soft drugs. Others consider alcohol, cigarettes and cannabis to be soft, but consider heroin, LSD, and MDMA to be hard drugs. Some make a distinction between “grown” drugs like tobacco, alcohol, and cannabis, and “designer drugs” like MDMA and fentanyl. Lines blur and definitions become harder to follow the more one looks at what soft and hard might mean.
Some people are more susceptible to one type of drug versus another, so it’s hard to say which drug is the most dangerous. If the important metric is how much harm the drug causes to society, then the most dangerous drugs are inarguably tobacco, alcohol, and opioids (both prescription opioids and street heroin). Everything else ranks under these behemoths.
If ranked by addictiveness – which is difficult to gauge – then the most dangerous drugs tend to be heroin, cocaine, tobacco, barbiturates (which are only very rarely prescribed these days), and alcohol.
Are All Drugs Bad?
Drugs refer to either to psychotropic substances or all medication, and no, they’re not all bad. Very few are entirely bad, as a matter of fact. Most hallucinogens were studied with the intent of producing medicine, and some have shown efficacy in the treatment of select disorders and conditions, within controlled environments.
Depressants, stimulants, and opioids alike are all highly addictive in some cases but have been and continue to be used to treat patients all over the world, with success. Meanwhile, anticonvulsants, antidepressants, blood thinners and anti-inflammatory drugs also by definition count as drugs but are neither addictive nor significantly mind-altering.
Can I Still Drink/Smoke/Take Drugs in Moderation?
Don’t do anything illegal. That’s the basis to which we all need to hold ourselves, simply to protect one another from the wrath of the law. That means you shouldn’t be in possession of any drug that your country considers illegal.
Then, consider the risks and the reward. All science points towards alcohol in any amount being dangerous to a person’s health, reducing your lifespan and opening up the possibility of a myriad of different diseases and conditions. However, you could also get hit by a bus tomorrow. Ultimately, it’s up you as an adult to decide if you’re going to smoke, drink, or take drugs.
But if you’ve ever struggled with addiction and have gone through recovery, then one thing is for sure: you’re done with drugs. Drug use – especially early on in life – primes us for taking other drugs, regardless of what drug you started with. And if you’ve been addicted to one drug, you’re also more likely to get addicted to something else. If you’re in recovery and want to try something else, just don’t.
Ultimately, a sober life is neither boring nor bad. You’re not missing out just because you’re not drinking alcohol or skipping smoking. There’s much more to life than drugs.