What Are “Hard” and “Soft” Drugs?

By Neuroskeptic | June 27, 2017 2:35 pm

A new study examines the blurry distinction between “hard” and “soft” drugs.

The “hardness” of drugs is a concept that makes intuitive sense, but is difficult to put into precise terms. “Hard” drugs are those which are viewed as more addictive, more potent and more toxic than the comparatively benign “soft” variety. The concept has a normative aspect: “hard” drugs are bad, and you should avoid them, even if you use soft drugs.

In the new paper, Slovakian researchers Peter Janik et al. tried to quantify the perceived “hardness” of various drugs, from alcohol to LSD and cocaine. The authors counted the number of times each substance was listed as a “hard” or a “soft” drug across 132 peer-reviewed research papers that gave at least one such example, published between 2011 and 2015.

The results contained a few surprises:



Cannabis was the most frequently cited “soft” drug while cocaine and heroin were the leading “hard” ones, which is not unexpected. However, I was surprised that hallucinogens such as LSD and psilocybin mushrooms were frequently listed as “hard” drugs, given that these substances are not considered to be addictive or especially toxic.

That cocaine was twice listed as a soft drug, and methamphetamine was also listed as such once, is also a little odd. Cannabis was unexpectedly called a hard drug four times.

Then we come to alcohol, which was listed as a “soft” drug 42 times, and as a “hard” one 3 times. This was surprising to me, as I didn’t expect to see alcohol listed very often in either category. Most people don’t consider alcohol a “drug”, although of course it is one, and if I had to name a “soft drug”, alcohol wouldn’t come to mind.

And how “soft” is alcohol really? Janik et al. note that in terms of toxicity and addictive potential, alcohol is more problematic than many of the “hard” drugs. Presumably, its legal status and widespread use has softened its image.

Janik et al. conclude that “hardness” is a vague concept and that scientists should probably stop using the terms “soft” and “hard”:

Explanations for categorization as ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ are rarely given. ‘Hardness’ or ‘softness’ may refer to different aspects of psychoactive substances and can be perceived differently when comparing only two or a small number of specific drugs rather than the entire spectrum of substances… citations supporting categorization were missing in 90% of the articles.

To avoid confusion in the future, we recommend not using the terms “ hard drugs” and “ soft drugs” in scientific publications unless adequately clarified and precisely specified by authors.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: drugs, papers, science, select, Top Posts
  • http://www.delunula.com/ Andre Delunula

    It’s alarming that alcohol, the most dangerous drug on the planet, by number of deaths and related illnesses, is considered ‘soft’ by so many.

    • Erik Bosma

      There are many that don’t even consider alcohol a drug. That way they can keep drinking.

  • Erik Bosma

    Well, if they just asked some people who has done copious amounts of most of those drugs. Then we might get another viewpoint.
    Oh, glad you asked. By far I would say that alcohol is probably the hardest drug I have had the pleasure to tangle with (21 years). And I would give the number 2 spot to cocaine (3 years). And #3 to tobacco (15 years).
    Alcohol is harmful to almost every organ in your body, makes you do incredibly stupid things and can kill you if you try to stop without help. Brain seizures are common. Also waking up in jail looking at life in prison while not remembering what it is you did.
    Cocaine can kill at an early age because it turns you into a coke zombie where you just can’t stop until you have absolutely nothing left of value or you are near-death. Heart attacks are common.
    We all know what tobacco can do.
    And pot is no slacker either. Although it may seem harmless at the start’ after several years it can promote schizophrenia and/or severe anxiety syndrome. If that doesn’t get you and you continue to smoke for years it will when you try to stop.
    Yes, heroin (12 years) and fentanyl, etc are dangerous but that is usually only because the suppliers are too stupid to mix it properly and it is easy to accidentally get “hot capped”. If an addict was given a proper dose of heroin every day he cold still lead a normal life and live to a decent age. Constipation seems to be the worst problem.
    But they are all still drugs and will greatly interfere with you fullfilling your life as a human being and productive member of society.

    • polistra24

      Ditto. The numbers are clear. Heavy drinkers die 20 years early and lose brainpower long before that. Heavy smokers die 5 years early and never lose mental functions. It’s obviously better to avoid both, but if we’re comparing one drug versus the other, alcohol is the ‘hardest’ of all. (Except for newer synthetics like flakka and Krokodil.)

    • Angela

      Ok so if you think alcohol is worse than meth you are insane. I mean theyre all bad but there is very rarely a middle with meth whereas its more probable with drinking and everyone I know who does cocaine does it on occassion. Meth and heroin are the real villains and you saying cocaine smoking and drinking are worse makes me think you havent done copious amounts of drugs lol. Just my perspective.

      • jack black

        I have to agree. While alcohol is bad, it’s nowhere on par with what you see with junkies and tweakers.

        • Michael O’Riley

          We aren’t discussing who is more evil, tweakers, vampires, or drunks. We are discussing which drugs are the most addictive and deadly. I’d say alcohol and heroin are the worst, and I’d throw Xanax in there too, especially considering the fact that combining any two of the three dramatically increases the chance of an overdose. Its true, only alcohol and benzo withdrawal can kill you, but there is something to be said of the dangers of injecting drugs with used or dirty “rigs” as is commonplace for meth and heroin use. Tweakers and heroin addicts are not worse than drunks in my opinion. Possession of a schedule I or II narcotic leads to arrests, losing your job, thus losing your money, and then the stealing begins. Possession of a beer bottle is… nothing. Maybe you get a high five if you don’t smell/look like a bum yet. Alcohol is also cheap and available almost everywhere on earth, kicking it in a restaurant is like getting clean in a trap house. I’m with Erik, I’d say alcohol. My two cents.

      • Erik Bosma

        I totally agree with you about the meth-heads. However, I’m pretty sure that what is causing most of the health problems is that the “meth” that is consumed these days is manufactured in some greasy biker’s bathtub and made out of God-knows-what ingredients. Meth-heads also don’t eat because they’re always chasing the dragon. If it was legal and controlled then we wouldn’t have a lot of these problems.

        • Erik Bosma

          My kids think I’m a little crazy so you could be on to something.

    • Ronnie Childs

      I’m right there with you, brother. Also, as an alternative to measured, properly-dosed heroin daily, there is a newer alternative bupenorphine (sp?), It completely eliminates narcotic craving without altering the sensorium (no euphoria, or very little) in most people, but Uncle Sam makes it an absolute BITCH for docs to prescribe. It’s not a miracle drug, but it’s the closest we have to one for most opiate addicts. The stuff WORKS..

      • Erik Bosma

        You’re right. I had forgotten about the bupenorphine (or as it is adminstered, Suboxone).

    • Monica Rose Kiesel

      I’m 58 and my high school science teacher said the same thing about heroin. I’m pretty sure he was speaking from a purely scientific viewpoint, rather than from experience.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Mammals as a class like to party. People as a class need escape. Civilization is an an overstuffed inequitable toxicity whose primary goals are to inflict, exploit, deny, misinform, and punish. Pick your recreational pharmaceutical(s).

    Legislate one singular rule of law: Losses from what you do to yourself will not be involuntarily compensated by others. Now, do what you want…and bloody stop whining.

    John Belushi and Carrie Fisher exited on speedballs. That is better than being crushed to death within a small steel compartment because a 6800 ton $billion Arleigh Burke-class destroyer guided missile platform could not detect a 29,000 tonne container ship whose radar signature demanded its own ZIP code.

    • Adam Klyce


    • Erik Bosma

      You always have such a lovely way of saying things.

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  • jaimelmanzano

    What if the government kept out of regulating use and access to drugs? Users would learn how to take drugs. Suppliers would provide dosage and quality control for customers. Overdose remedies would become widely known, and accessible. Addicts would likely use drugs more reasonably. Overdosing, and deaths, would diminish. Policing for illegal drugs would be unnecessary. The undeground, and violent criminal economy would end. Medical care costs would likely diminish.

    • Erik Bosma

      Once the US stops bullying its ‘allies’ into continuing the War On Drugs we can start to follow the example of countries like Portugal. In Canada that is all that is stopping us.

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  • bear

    Yet they didn’t make drugs illegal because they were dangerous, but because they didn’t want non-white people raping white women, and because they were worried about cultural influences of native Americans on how people smoke pipes– the hippies always say peace and love, why? Long story but it has to do with sacred pipes. They’ve used jails as slave plantations as they put people who are doing regular human activities in jail, for reasons only explainable by religious hatred and racism. At that time they took cannabis medicine away from people who were using it, in 1937, and wrongly have been saying that only Chinese and Indians ever considered cannabis medicine since, as if that makes me think it’s a worse anti-convulsant. The medical system is broken as medicine is under lock and key and lies are spread instead of truth. What are hard and soft drugs? Something that came out of the mouth of a useless lying idiot that deserves to die.

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  • BigBlackClocks

    Alcohol as a “soft” drug is ridiculously preposterous to me, Alcohol, meth, cocaine and heroin are some of the worst drugs you can take. Following behind that is tobacco because of what it does to your body in the long term. Hallucinogens and MDMA are absolutely not hard drugs, they are not toxic nor are they addictive. The fast food you eat at Maccers is more toxic than hallucinogens. Sugar is more damaging than hallucinogens. In fact I don’t even view hallucinogens as damaging, other than the mental problems that might come if someone abuses them irresponsibly. Always take in moderation, never abuse anything to the extreme, whether that’s sugary food, fast food, drugs, alcohol, sex, etc. If you take in moderation, everything will be fine. The biggest problem with drugs (and anything really) is that people abuse them and then they fall victim to it.

  • Fingal Carson

    Only retards think marijuana is soft and alcohol is hard. Either both are hard or both are soft. No one gets addicted to fermented sugar without mental issues. The same way no one gets addicted to plants without seriously mental issues, tobacco or cannabis.



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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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