Perhaps you’ve heard some drugs referred to as “harder” or “softer” than others. But what, if anything, do these terms really mean, and what do they really tell us about the drugs that they describe? The answer to this question may be more complicated than you think, and that answer may be “surprisingly little.” 

But first, let’s start with some basic definitions. A “hard” drug is a drug that is thought of as being more potent, toxic, addictive, or dangerous than a “softer” drug. The legality of a drug and its mode of administration is also sometimes relevant to these distinctions, with illegal drugs being presumed to be more dangerous and drugs that can be injected being thought of as “harder” than drugs that can be smoked or consumed orally. 

On the other hand, a “soft” drug is considered to be comparatively safe and low risk, though it also may be considered a “gateway drug” to the abuse of harder substances. Some drugs, such as heroin, crack, and methamphetamines, are almost universally considered hard, with heroin rightly conceptualized as the most addictive and most dangerous of them all, while the legal drugs alcohol and cannabis are usually considered soft. 

But, as was investigated in a 2017 study, the arbitrary and unscientific nature of these terms means that they are actually used quite inconsistently, and in ways that are not actually in concert with how dangerous or addictive a drug actually is. 

For instance, though prescription opiate painkillers and benzodiazepines are some of the most dangerous drugs out there, their legal and orally administered status means that they are not always considered hard drugs. This is perhaps even more true of alcohol, which is legal for all people over 21 to use without any sort of prescription but which is responsible for around 95,000 American deaths a year. In fact, as a preventable cause of death, it comes second only to poor diet and exercise and tobacco use—but to the extent that tobacco is even considered a drug at all, it is usually considered a soft one. 

Things are also complicated in the case of hallucinogens, which are sometimes considered soft drugs because of their low risk of addiction or overdose but at other times considered hard drugs due to their illegal status, the substantial degree of dissociation they produce, and the substantial risk of “bad trips” and ensuing negative psychological after-effects. Even cannabis, which has a relatively low risk of overdose or addiction, is sometimes considered a “hard” drug due to its illegal status. 

Though there is likely some value to be found in conceptualizing drugs as more or less dangerous or addictive, the factors that determine what drug is legal and what kind of drug use is more socially stigmatized do not necessarily have much to do with a drug’s actual risk.

The idea of “soft” or “softer” drugs is also a dangerous one insofar as it perpetuates the false idea that certain drugs are virtually safe to use. However, the dangers and addictiveness of the supposedly “soft” drug alcohol are well-documented, and even cannabis use comes with the risk of psychological dependence, the risk of suffering irreversible negative health or legal consequences due to a decision made while intoxicated, and the risk of suffering from serious, protracted, physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms

So, yes, while you should definitely stay away from any drug that you think of as “hard,” you also shouldn’t make the mistake of underestimating the soft ones. If you or someone you love is currently struggling with addiction to or withdrawal from any drug at all, feel free to call our hotline at at (833) 489-5577 at any time for information on how you can get help today. 



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