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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.

Drug-Users at Harvard Explain their Views About Pot and LSD

Though I know the evening’s empire has returned into sand

Vanished from my hand

Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping.

Take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship

My senses have been stripped

My hands can’t feel to grip

My toes too numb to step

Wait only for my boot heels to be following.

Take me disappearing down the smoke rings of my mind

Down the foggy ruins of time.

Let me forget about today until tomorrow. Bob Dylan, Mr. Tambourine Man

Harvard has long been a prime target of reactionary politically it has been called a haven for egg-heads, pinkos and idealists. Socially it has become, in some circles, a symbol of the libertine and the degenerate, boasting both sex orgies and drug rings. For this reason it is particularly important to preface any discussion of drugs with specific limitations in order to avoid exaggeration.

Forty-five students interviewed for this study are sophomores and juniors between the ages of 18 and 20. On the street you could not distinguish them from other students, and they have little in common except that they have all taken marijuana or LSD during their last two years at Harvard. I chose to single out pot and LSD because they seem to define the extremes of the spectrum of drug experiences at Harvard–from dabbler to hed.

Harvard are no longer reserved for the beatniks or the alienated, but are used, in varying degrees, by a wide variety and unknown number of students. They approach drugs on different levels of maturity, for a myriad of reasons. “You ask me why I smoke pot,” queried one boy. “It’s like asking people why they make love or suck another boy simply commented, “It makes me feel good. I laugh a lot when I’m high and have good other students it’s of sense of missing something by leading a routine college life that prompts them to take drugs. “With drugs you can go into your own mind, explore it, and find things you’d never have dreamed were true about yourself.” Still other students use pot as an alcoholic escape or stimulant such as the boy who said he “blew grass” occasionally because it made him less inhibited to relax and enjoy himself.

During the interviews I was struck by the high degree of intelligence and lucidity with which most students answered my questions. It reflected a tendency among most of them to think and talk a great deal about taking drugs, and unconsciously construct arguments to defend their habit against the legal and social bans imposed by society. Obtaining drugs is a positive act which goes against the inertia of legal constraints–to ignore the restrictions requires some internal debate. Having decided that drugs were worth it, the students interviewed took particular pains to describe drug-induced sensations which defy verbal cliches. To the majority, pot manifests itself through dizzy spells and then painful awakenings; it made all of them thirsty and many nauseous. In addition there is an intense distortion of the sense of time which can be seen by extrordinary gaps in “high” convesations. The time lag does not, however, interrupt the continuity of thought.

Everyone noted a change in perspective, although some called it a distortion while others were inclined to say it was simply a sharpening of the senses. Things took on an extraordinary importance when they were high. “I became fascinated with objects. Where things began and ended, where they converged and came to an edge or a point, where there was a gap, a hole, a void, I seemed to be drawn to it and could stare at it for long periods of time.” To many, colors became more vivid and jazz more intelligible.

LSD More Violent

The same phenomenon carries over into their descriptions of LSD highs, except that the distortions become more violent–“anything which is crumpled or quilted comes alive and starts to crawl.” Along with this fixation and concentration on objects, LSD users express a greater intellectual appreciation for the “total meaning” of the object. One student explained that with LSD words break down as tools in attempts to describe the sensation. Instead of thinking about things one experiences them. He continued to explain that this was why it was difficult to translate what insight had been gained into every day use.

As an example of understanding an object as a whole, the student said that when he looked at a newspaper on an LSD high, he not only saw the object which lay on his doorstep every morning, but also single letters put together to form words, words combined to make phrases; he saw people working hard to write the articles and printers sweating over their type; he saw thousands reading it, ignoring it, or folding it into paper planes.

In descriptions of heightened or distorted senses, a number of students spoke of sexual intercourse as being “unbelievably beautiful” while both mates are under the influence of either pot or LSD. “It’s not only that your senses and appetites are sharpened, and that one become uninhabited, but one feels a special sense of community and understanding which makes the act so much more enjoyable.” Another student mentioned that he became particularly aware of conflicting drives while he was on LSD, especially the sexual drive. As he described it in Freudian terms: “the id surfaced and discharged its libido.”

One scientifically-minded student described the effects of pot in terms of what our eyes allow themselves to see. “Normally the eyes are distracted by hundreds of different lights and objects, but only single out the important ones for consideration by the intellect. Pot removes this selectivity, and our eyes send indiscriminate signals to the brain. The result is that we perceive things in a completely novel fashion.”

Besides distortions of objects and other people, some of the interviewed said they would often look down at their hand, while on LSD, and see an ugly, clumsy mass which didn’t seem to belong to them. Other students said that LSD actually wiped out their identity until they could fade into a knot on the wall and watch humanity pass, performing its insignificant tasks. “LSD,” one student said, “is an excuse to sit back and let your imagination go berserk.”

But where do Harvard students buy these drugs? Almost all local drugs come from New York; locally they are usually obtained from friends who give or sell drugs as a favor, and not for pecuniary benefit. There are, however, occasional student pushers who buy large quantities of drugs on the New York market and bring them up to college to sell at an enormous profit, sometimes enough to pay tuition. But these are the exception and not the rule. Many students buy their drugs from friends at home and bring them up to school, yet almost everyone I interviewed agreed that it was easier to buy pot here than in any of the big cities.

Paranoia a Password

Paranoia about drug-taking was a password with the group, but it is interesting to note that they all recognized their fears and called it by its name. Some felt that paranoia was the worst part of taking drugs while others explained that it was a safety device, or an animal instinct of survival which the drug had not been able to eradicate. All of those I talked to had their doubts about talking to me at first, and many later pleaded that no article be printed for fear that it would turn the heat on them. But most of them were primarily concerned with having their views explained and recognized by the community. They wanted to communicate; they just didn’t want to get “busted.”

In fact, most of the students interviewed felt that the Harvard community was more tolerant than most towards drugs, and only occasionally did they report peers who would shun them because they took drugs. One of the boys said that the most reactionary responses to his taking had come from Freshmen who “hadn’t had time to acclimatize to the new morality.”

The students agreed almost unanimously that while on a high, traditions and social customs appear nothing more than a cruel hoax which society has used to limit the true potential of individuals. “Society and its customs have put blinders on us all, and pot takes them off. Instead of thinking the same thoughts in the neat manner that we have grown accustomed to, drugs allow the mind to wander and form free associations that hardly seemed possible without them. From the summit of a high one can see what trivia our anxieties are made of.”

But to show that they weren’t just repeating cliches, some of the students admitted that although drugs allow the mind to escape its habitual cage of civilization, they trap it immediately into a new set of thinking patterns and customs; a new social order with its own stylized mores. These traditions usually grow around a small group of friends who are in the habit of smoking together. The same comments, the same gestures, the same conversations, are repeated within pot cliques and grow into a ritual built around the great god Pot.

Most students are not asking for a Ginsbergian revolution. Although there were a few students who ranted on about how wonderful it felt when you reached the threshold of a high and how, for the exquisite sensation alone, pot should be legalized, most of the sample was more cautious. In general they advanced a defensible argument that society wasn’t ready for legalized pot yet, but that in comparison with the evils of liquor and cigarettes, pot was virtually harmless. “While a high sharpens your senses, liquor makes you dull and uncomfortable–especially the morning after.” Many of the students felt that pot had unjustly been given a stigma, “but that’s because people will never know about drugs until they’ve tried them. Even then they probably won’t learn how to use it properly and will go away with a bad taste in their mouth.”

But on the other side there were some cautioning words about taking drugs, the main one being that if taken under stress or while still unwilling to surrender to the influence of the drug the result will be a “horror show” of threatening hallucinations. The other reservation about pot was that it should not be over-estimated. “You can’t do your math or anything practical while you’re high because it kills the Protestant Ethic in people. If people could live by fingerpainting we could legalize pot.”

Finally there were two students in the sample who had been taking a lot of drugs and who had given it up. One said that he was “tired of seeing the same show over and over;” the other said that if you can take drugs for a while and come out know-why you don’t need them, then you have really learned. “There are many different levels of consciousness, and the down undrugged world is only one of them. Experimenting with drugs,” he concluded, “is the easiest way to widen your perspectives.

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Drug-Users at Harvard Explain their Views About Pot and LSD Though I know the evening’s empire has returned into sand Vanished from my hand Left me blindly here to stand but still ]]>