New Drugs

Hard vs Soft Drugs: What’s the Difference

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You’ve probably heard the terms “hard drug” and “soft drug” used to describe certain legal and illegal substances. These words are typically used to distinguish between drugs that are socially acceptable (soft) versus those that are not (hard). Oftentimes these terms also attempt to label drugs that carry a high potential for addiction (hard) versus those that do not (soft). However, as we will explain, this binary is not so easily defined. Below, you will gain a more distinctive understanding of hard vs soft drugs.

What is a Hard Drug?

Hard drugs are considered more harmful and pose greater risks of addiction, overdose, and physical side effects.

The following drugs are commonly called “hard” drugs:

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Examples of Soft Drugs

What are soft drugs? Here are some examples of drugs that are considered “soft”:

Depending on who you ask, you may see some variation with the items on these lists. For example, some people may consider marijuana a hard drug because it's very addictive, whereas others consider it soft due to its relative safety. But that’s exactly the problem: it isn’t clear what is a "hard drug” and what is a “soft drug.”

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Safety of Hard vs Soft Drugs

Are any illegal drugs really safe?

Although these terms are often bandied about, there is no clear, scientific distinction between “hard” and “soft” drugs. Rather, it’s an arbitrary way to label “unsafe” and “safe” drugs.

But what exactly makes a drug safe, especially for long-term use? The answer to this question depends on factors like dosage, frequency of use, and method of administration.

As shown from the above lists, meth, cocaine, and heroin are often called hard drugs, while alcohol and cannabis are often categorized as soft. One of the reasons why hard drugs are “hard” is because they can be snorted and thus produce a really intense trip, but recently there have been strains of marijuana that have been genetically engineered to be stronger, longer-lasting, and more dangerous. Can we still say, then, that weed is “soft,” if it causes a psychoactive high comparable to that of meth or cocaine?

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Using Soft Drugs in a Hard Way

Furthermore, people can use soft drugs in a “hard” way. The most common example of this is binge-drinking. Alcohol, when consumed in moderation, isn’t habit-forming or particularly harmful, but once that consumption becomes excessive, alcohol can be a very “hard” substance indeed.

It’s also difficult to ignore the social stigma that comes with the mention of hard drugs — meth, cocaine, heroin — and not soft drugs. Alcohol, weed, and tobacco are almost like social lubricants — they smooth social interactions and thus are socially acceptable. Hard drugs, on the other hand, are seen as hedonistic and uncontrollable, hence the stigma that surrounds addiction, especially when it involves so-called “hard” substances. That’s why it’s unhelpful and even harmful to view drugs through this biased lens — it prevents people from seeking the help they need.

Medical professionals agree that this binary classification is a poor way to discuss substances in a way that is scientifically meaningful. Thus, it is better to think of hard and soft drugs merely as markers of public opinion.

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A Better Way to Classify

There are federal classification rules when it comes to controlled substances. Instead of the vague “hard” and “soft” categories, drugs are listed by the FDA into schedules from highest to lowest potential for dependency, among other factors.

  • Schedule I, for example, contains drugs that carry a “high potential for abuse” and have no accepted medical use [1]: heroin, peyote, ecstasy, LSD, marijuana. Federally, marijuana is still an illegal Schedule I drug, but some states — Maryland included — have legalized medical use and limited recreational use.
  • Schedule II drugs also carry a high potential for abuse. They can occasionally be prescribed for medical use. Some examples include: oxycodone, fentanyl, meth, Adderall, cocaine. 
  • Schedule III is a step down, with a low to moderate potential for abuse: ketamine, testosterone, Tylenol with codeine. 
  • Schedule IV drugs include Xanax, Soma, Valium, Ambien, and Ativan. 
  • Schedule V, the lowest tier, is made up of low-risk drugs containing limited amounts of narcotics, such as the cough medicine Robitussin AC.


As you can see, the “hard” and “soft” drugs are all over the board when it comes to scheduling. Alcohol and tobacco aren’t even on these lists, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t harmful when taken in excess. These schedules simply make it easier for lawmakers to set penalties for possession and other drug-related offenses.

Scheduling, too, is an imperfect measure of the severity of these drugs, but at least it does a better job of setting clear criteria. So the next time you see or hear someone mention hard drugs vs soft drugs, know that they’re talking more about public opinion rather than scientific categorization.

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Recovery from Hard and Soft Drugs at Avenues Recovery

At Avenues Recovery, we help patients recover from addiction to all kinds of substances. We don’t subscribe to the vague distinctions between “hard” drugs and “soft” drugs, because our treatment plans are science and evidence-based. 

We hope you will never need us, but if you do our door is always open. You can contact us online or call us 24/7 at 603-505-8365.

To learn more about various substances and the effects of drugs on the brain, read our online resources.



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