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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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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.  

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.

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.

Top Drug Warrior Unsure if Meth is Worse Than Marijuana

February 4, 2014

Appearing at a House hearing on Tuesday, President Obama’s deputy drug czar refused to directly answer a question on whether marijuana is more dangerous and addictive than methamphetamine or cocaine.

The hearing, called by Rep. John Mica (R-FL), was designed to offer legalization opponents in the Republican Party a chance to paint the President as weak on crime due to his recent comments in favor of marijuana decriminalization. Mica suggested that the President’s statements are symptomatic of a “schizophrenic” policy toward substance abuse, adding: “We’ve gone from ‘just say no,’ then we had ‘I didn’t inhale,’ and now we have ‘just say maybe’ or ‘just go ahead.'”

Michael Botticelli, however — who serves as deputy director for the Office on National Drug Control Policy — likely came away with a different impression of Tuesday’s discussion thanks to a prolonged grilling by Democrats on the House Oversight Committee.

The line of questioning from Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) was particularly amazing to watch, as he repeatedly asked Botticelli to clarify why marijuana is considered a Schedule I substance — reserved for the most dangerous drugs — when cocaine and methamphetamine are both in Schedule II.

Botticelli was completely unprepared for the question and repeatedly tried to sidestep it, but Blumenauer hung on like a pitbull.

“Your equivocation right there, being unable to answer something clearly and definitively when there is unquestionable evidence to the contrary, is why young people don’t believe the propaganda, why they think [marijuana is] benign,” the Oregon Democrat said.

It took half the hearing, and numerous similar questions from Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) and Steve Cohen (D-TN), before Botticelli budged from the government’s official line that marijuana is more dangerous than cocaine or meth.

“It is ludicrous, absurd, crazy to have marijuana at same level as heroin,” Cohen said. “Ask the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, if you could. Nobody dies from marijuana. People die from heroin.”

In the end, Obama’s deputy drug czar ultimately admitted that overdoses from marijuana are “rare” (even though they’re actually non-existent), and agreed that alcohol and prescription pills pose a much greater threat to public health than smoking pot.

“If someone cannot simply agree that marijuana is less harmful than drugs like heroin and methamphetamine, they are not fit to be overseeing our nation’s drug policy,” Dan Riffle, policy director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in an advisory. “This is just more evidence that it’s time for a new approach to marijuana policy in our nation’s capital. Our marijuana policy should be guided by scientific evidence and not the antiquated views of some federal officials.”

Appearing at a House hearing on Tuesday, President Obama’s deputy drug czar refused to directly answer a question on whether marijuana is more dangerous and addictive than methamphetamine or cocaine.