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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- Drug Use
- Prescription Medications
- Alcohol Use
- Addictive Behaviors
- Nicotine Use
- Coping and Recovery
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.
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.
Meth and marijuana
The Clinical Impact of Marijuana: When the Use of Marijuana Has Gone Too Far
As a mental health clinician, you’re more likely than ever before to have clients who use marijuana and cannabis products.
And while the last decade has seen a cultural shift toward acceptance of marijuana use, cannabis has significant addictive potential that you can’t afford to overlook as a mental health clinician. Cannabis Use Disorder can exacerbate your clients’ mental health problems as they self-medicate to avoid uncomfortable emotions, thoughts, and memories.
Even if addiction isn’t the focus of your practice, you need to be prepared when your client’s use of marijuana and cannabis products goes too far!
Attend this 3-hour webinar and you’ll get:
- Tools and tactics to identify Cannabis Use Disorder in your clients
- Techniques for successfully treating co-occurring disorders with marijuana users
- Evidence-based approaches to manage cannabis withdrawal symptoms
- The latest on Medication Assisted Treatment
Sign up today and ensure you’re confident in your ability to provide your clients’ the best care possible and ready to navigate the ever-changing impacts of drug use on your work!
The Meth Epidemic: What Every Clinician Needs to Know
Dangerously addictive, meth is a drug that ends lives. It’s literally a substance so volatile it puts holes in the human brain.
But it harms those far beyond the nearly half-million Americans that use meth each week. Families are neglected, children are exposed, and the prison system is overrun. It’s everyone’s problem.
As the tentacles of this sinister epidemic spread into our communities, you need to be prepared to address issues related to methamphetamine and other stimulant drug use in your clients’ who use and in your clients’ who have a drug user in their lives!
Whether you’re an addictions professional, social worker, counselor, psychologist or nurse, this 3-hour live webcast will give you the critical information you need to:
- Understand the impact of co-occurring disorders with meth use on treatment outcomes
- Work more effectively with clients that struggle with a dependency on meth
- Be prepared for future trends and next steps in dealing with the meth epidemic
Sign up now and make sure that you can be part of the solution to one of the scariest epidemics facing our communities today!
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