Addiction Drug Use The Differences Between Hard and Soft Drugs By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada. Learn about our editorial process Updated on July 24, 2020 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by John C. Umhau, MD, MPH, CPE Medically reviewed by John C. Umhau, MD, MPH, CPE 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). Learn about our Medical Review Board Print Colin Brynn/The Image Bank/Getty Images 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. What to Know About Heroin Use 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. The 10 Most Addictive Pain Killers 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. 3 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. Janik P, Kosticova M, Pecenak J, Turcek M. Categorization of psychoactive substances into "hard drugs" and "soft drugs": a critical review of terminology used in current scientific literature. Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse. 2017;43(6):636-646. doi:10.1080/00952990.2017.1335736 Keyes KM, Rutherford C, Miech R. Historical trends in the grade of onset and sequence of cigarette, alcohol, and marijuana use among adolescents from 1976-2016: Implications for "Gateway" patterns in adolescence. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2019;194:51-58. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2018.09.015 Dolan SB, Chen Z, Huang R, Gatch MB. "Ecstasy" to addiction: Mechanisms and reinforcing effects of three synthetic cathinone analogs of MDMA. Neuropharmacology. 2018;133:171-180. doi:10.1016/j.neuropharm.2018.01.020 By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? 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