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An alternate categorization of hard (red), soft (yellow) and borderline drugs (orange), by Nutt et al.[1]

Hard and soft drugs are controversial and mostly colloquial terms for – respectively – especially damaging psychoactive drugs,[2] and drugs that are believed to be non-addictive (or minimally addictive) and less damaging than hard drugs.[3] The term "soft drug" is considered controversial by its critics because it implies that the drug causes no or insignificant harm.[3]

The distinction between soft drugs and hard drugs is important in the drug policy of the Netherlands, where cannabis production, retailing and use come under official tolerance, subject to certain conditions. The Dutch Opium Law has two lists of drugs, List I and List II, that are colloquially considered to be lists of hard and soft drugs, respectively. Such official distinctions are not accepted in many other countries such as the US, Japan or the UK, which use different classification systems in courts with neutral names like for example Class 4.


Hard drugs

Examples of well-known "hard" drugs include opioids (morphine, heroin), cocaine, amphetamines, barbiturates, LSD, MDMA, alcohol[4], and nicotine[5]. Drugs in this group are generally described as being physically addictive, severely psychologically addictive, easier to overdose on, and/or posing serious health and social risks, including death. The therapeutic index (ratio of median toxic dose to median "effective" dose) is often relatively low as well. Most, if not all, of these drugs are stimulants or depressants. Some of these drugs (such as alcohol or tobacco) can be freely purchased by adults in most countries, while some others can be purchased only with a doctor's prescription. Some, like heroin and cocaine, are generally illegal, although cocaine is sometimes used legally as a topical anesthetic in countries like the United States, and heroin is legally used as an analgesic in some countries, such as the United Kingdom.

Soft drugs

Examples of well known drugs that are considered soft are Tetrahydrocannabinol (Cannabis), Psilocybin (Psilocybe Mushrooms), Salvinorin A (Salvia Divinorum), Mescaline (Peyote Cactus), and DMT (Although sometimes listed as a hard drug) [6][7][8][9][9][9]. Caffeine is sometimes included as a soft drug (see next section). The term soft drug is most usually applied to cannabis (marijuana or hashish), which can produce psychological dependence but is less addictive than caffeine overall.[10] "Soft drugs" are generally not physically addictive and carry less risk of overdose and health threats. Most have relatively high therapeutic indexes (ratio of toxic dose to "effective" dose), and most have high LD50s as well. Psychological dependence, if applicable, is generally mild compared to harder drugs.

Controversial classifications between hard and soft (borderline or disputed)

Not all drugs are placed consistently under one of the "hard drug" or "soft drug" labels. Examples of these include MDMA, various dissociatives, and caffeine.

  • There is controversy around LSD[7][8][9][9][9] and by extension several other psychedelics.
  • MDMA may be perceived as "soft" as it produces no physical addiction[11] or "hard" due to its possible physical damage from neuro-toxicity when abused excessively, which can be complicated by alcohol and dehydration.
  • Nicotine (from tobacco products) may be perceived as "soft" by some, but its extreme addictiveness (physical and psychological), chronic harm, and lethality can lead one to conclude it is "hard." As a result, some experts place it in between the overall most hazardous and least hazardous categories, while others[5] dispute this categorization and consider it "hard" nonetheless.
  • Alcohol may be perceived as "soft" by some due to it being currently legal in most countries, but nonetheless it meets all of the above criteria to be considered hard (severe physical and psychological addictiveness, physical harm, and significant overdose potential) and can cause significant social harm as well.[4] It is not as harmful overall as heroin or cocaine,[12] but more so than most soft drugs,[4] hence the disputed status.
  • Caffeine, the most widely used psychoactive stimulant drug in the world[13], is legal and unregulated in nearly all jurisdictions, although it has potential for both physical and psychological dependency, known as caffeinism,[14][15] with a wide range of unpleasant physical and mental conditions.[16][17] Its overdose potential is also higher than that of most soft drugs, though nowhere near that of hard drugs. If used often, caffeine can also give rise to bodily stress, ulcers, and irregular heartbeat, which can sometimes lead to death, though more deaths occur from overdose. Despite this, caffeine is still much safer and less addictive[10] than most hard drugs.
  • Dissociatives, such as DXM and ketamine, are often disputed as to what category they belong in. However, PCP (generally the strongest dissociative available on the street) is usually considered hard.[18]

See also


  1. ^ Nutt D, King LA, Saulsbury W, Blakemore C (March 2007). "Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse". Lancet 369 (9566): 1047–53. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)60464-4. PMID 17382831.   edit
  2. ^ Thomas Nordegren (2002). The A-Z Encyclopedia of Alcohol and Drug Abuse. Parkland, Fla.: Brown Walker Press. p. 327. ISBN 158112404X.  
  3. ^ a b Thomas Nordegren (2002). The A-Z Encyclopedia of Alcohol and Drug Abuse. Parkland, Fla.: Brown Walker Press. p. 597. ISBN 158112404X.  
  4. ^ a b c "Alcohol is the hard drug used by respectable people, alcohol is our nation's -- and Iowa City's -- number one hard drug" -- Nicholas Johnson, formerly co-director of Iowa's Institute for Health, Behavior and Environmental Policy [1]
  5. ^ a b 'Treat nicotine as a hard drug', Nicotine should be treated as a powerfully addictive drug similar to heroin and cocaine, leading doctors have said. [2]
  6. ^ Marijuana (yet illegal in most countries), Salvia and other 'soft drugs' do not cause addiction. [3]
  7. ^ a b Zero physical addiction potential. Not something that makes you want to do it again immediately. Essentially zero psychological addiction potential.[4]
  8. ^ a b LSD is not considered addictive, in that its users do not exhibit the medical community's commonly accepted definitions of addiction and physical dependence. [5]
  9. ^ a b c d e f Clinical Management of Poisoning and Drug Overdose by Haddad Winchester page 459: "No well-documented human deaths resulting directly from the toxic effects of LSD itself have occurred, though LSD has been implicated in accidental deaths, suicides, and homicides. LD50 (That's lethal dose in 50% of those who ingest this much) determinations vary widely with species, begin 46 mg/kg in mice, 16.5 mg/kg in rats, 0.3 mg/kg in rabbits and 0.1 mg/kg in elephants. In monkeys, the LD100 is 5 mg/kg. Death in these animals is the result of respiratory failure, preceded in the rabbit by marked hyperthermia. Human data are manifestly lacking, and predictions of the average lethal dose for humans have ranged from 0.2 mg/kg to more than 1 mg/kg, administered orally."
  10. ^ a b Philip J. Hilts Relative Addictiveness of Drugs New York Times Aug. 2, 1994
  11. ^ MDMA does not produce violence or physical addiction
  12. ^ Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse The Lancet David Nutt, et al. 2007
  13. ^ Lovett, Richard (24 September 2005). "Coffee: The demon drink?" (fee required). New Scientist (2518). Retrieved 2008-11-07.  
  14. ^ Mackay, DC; Rollins JW. (1989 Summer). "Caffeine and caffeinism". Journal of the Royal Naval Medical Service 75 (2): 65–7. PMID 2607498.  
  15. ^ James, JE; KP Stirling (September 1983). "Caffeine: A summary of some of the known and suspected deleterious effects of habitual use". British Journal of Addiction 78 (3): 251–8. doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.1983.tb02509.x. PMID 6354232.  
  16. ^ Leson CL, McGuigan MA, Bryson SM (1988). "Caffeine overdose in an adolescent male". J. Toxicol. Clin. Toxicol. 26 (5-6): 407–15. PMID 3193494.  
  17. ^ "Caffeine-related disorders". Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders. Retrieved 2006-08-14.  
  18. ^ Hays et al. (May-June 1996) Associations between drug use and deviant behavior in teenagers Addictive Behaviors Volume 21, Issue 3, Pages 291-302

Simple English

Certain kinds of drugs that act on the nervous system are sometimes loosely classified. Usually there are the following categories:

  • Hard drugs are drugs that lead to severe physical addiction. Many countries do not allow people to make, sell or use some of them, other than for medical purposes. Examples of such drugs are heroin, methamphetamine (meth), alcohol and nicotine. If it is legal to sell them, like with alcohol or nicotine, there are often taxes that need to be paid for them.
  • Soft drugs do not cause physical addiction. Examples of soft drugs are cannabis, mescaline, psilocybin and LSD. While they do not cause physical addiction, some of them may still lead to psychological dependency. Psychological dependency is a dependency of the mind. This means that people feel better when they have the drug. When they do not have the drug, they may be in a bad mood, for example.
  • Some drugs cannot be classified that way, as they have characteristics of both hard and soft drugs. Examples for such drugs are MDMA (known as Ecstasy), ketamine and caffeine.

In the Netherlands, there is a situation where the use of Soft drugs is tolerated.

Other websites

Marsh P. et al. 2003. Attachment, autonomy, and multifinality in adolescent internalizing and risky behavioral symptoms Dev.Psychopathol., 15:451-467.

Robins L.N. 1995.The natural history of substance use as a guide to setting drug policy. Am. J. Public Health. 85(1): 12–13


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