There are thousands of different drugs, both legal and illegal. Because of this variety, it is often necessary to classify drugs into several types for legal, medical, and treatment purposes. There are several ways to classify drugs, including by chemical similarities, effects on the mind and body, and legal definitions.
What Are Drug Classifications?
Drug classifications are a way to organize drugs into categories. There are many reasons to do this.
Classifying drugs by chemical similarities is useful because drugs that are chemically similar often have similar impacts and risks. An individual who is addicted to a drug is also more likely to abuse and become addicted to another drug if it is chemically similar. Also, the same treatment is often effective for chemically similar drugs. Despite these generalities, chemically similar drugs may have very different legal and medical impacts.
Many people classify drugs by how they impact the mind and body. For example, some drugs have a tendency to make a user active and energetic while others make an individual feel relaxed and calm. Many of these drug classifications have little basis in chemical similarity or legal outcomes, although there is often overlap.
Most countries have a legal classification system for drugs. These systems determine the circumstances, if any, under which that drug is legal, various requirements for that drug, and any legal penalties associated with possession, distribution, or manufacture of it. Legal classifications are generally based on the perceived medical value of a drug and its perceived risk and danger.
There is a considerable disagreement about how drugs should be classified, even among experts. This means that the same drug may be classified differently under two schemes or two systems may use categories with the same name. Due to these disagreements, it’s impossible to create a “definitive” set of drug classifications. However, some of the most common are listed below.
Drug Classifications Based on Chemical Makeup
Alcohol is the most widely abused substance across most of the world, including in the United States. Legal to some extent in all 50 states, alcohol impacts numerous body systems, which in turn causes numerous effects in users. Alcohol creates feelings of euphoria and lowers inhibitions, but it also severely impairs judgment, perception, and reaction times. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, but it causes the most severe long-term damage to the liver. There are many forms of alcohol, including:
Also called opiates, opioids are either derived from the drug opium or chemicals designed to mimic it. Opioids work by interacting with neurotransmitters in the brain and blocking the signals that they are sending. This enables opioids to serve as powerful pain killers, but it also can cause feelings of intense pleasure, leading to addiction. Opioid addiction is one of the most serious problems faced by America today. Opioids are some of the most addictive of all known substances, and they are also some of the deadliest. Some of the most well-known opioids include:
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Benzodiazepines, or Benzos, are a class of drugs that function by interacting with the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid-A (GABA-A). Each Benzo interacts with GABA-A differently, which is why each Benzo impacts the body and mind differently. Benzos are prescribed to treat a wide variety of psychiatric and sleep conditions, but they are very commonly abused. Benzos are highly addictive, and can cause numerous medical and psychiatric problems when not used as intended. Examples of Benzos include:
Cannabinoids are a class of drugs that are chemically similar to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active agent in marijuana. Cannabinoids create feelings of elation, known as a high, but they also negatively impact mental and physical functioning. Cannabinoids are the most widely abused drugs after alcohol, and they are increasingly gaining legal acceptance. Although considered less addictive than other drug classifications, cannabinoids can seriously damage a person’s mental and physical health. Examples of cannabinoids include:
Barbiturates act on the central nervous system by slowing down its functioning. Barbiturates are derivatives of the chemical barbituric acid. Barbiturates were historically popular for the treatment of psychiatric and sleep disorders, and they are still used for anesthesia and treatment of a number of conditions such as epilepsy and headaches. Barbiturates are highly addictive, and they also present a very high overdose risk as they cause many body systems to shut down. Examples of barbiturates include:
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Drug Classifications Based On Effect
More commonly referred to as “downers,” depressants create feelings of relaxation and tiredness. While many serve legitimate purposes in the fight against mental illness and sleep deprivation, they are very commonly abused because they may also create feelings of euphoria. Depressants are not only some of the most highly addictive drugs, but they are also some of the most highly dangerous and likely to cause overdose. Examples of depressants include:
Also known as “uppers,” the primary use of stimulants is to increase energy, concentration, and wakefulness. Stimulants are said to provide a “rush.” In the short term, stimulants are believed to increase productivity and performance, while producing an excited high of pleasure. In the long term, stimulants are incredibly addictive and have a very high potential for abuse. Examples of stimulants include:
Hallucinogens, sometimes referred to as dissociatives, alter the user’s perception of reality, often resulting in auditory and visual hallucinations, a process known as “tripping.” Although hallucinogens are generally less addictive than other drug classifications, their immediate impacts are generally more severe and dangerous. Examples of hallucinogens include:
- Psilocybin Mushrooms
Inhalants are a vast range of chemicals that are ingested primarily by breathing them in, or huffing. Most inhalants are commonly used materials that are in no way designed to be ingested by humans. While there is incredibly variety between inhalants, most produce feelings of a high. Inhalants are less studied than most other drugs. While they tend to be less addictive than many other substances, the use of inhalants is incredibly dangerous and causes many serious health effects. Examples of commonly abused inhalants include:
- Paint thinner
- Nail polish remover
Drug Classifications Based On Legal Definitions
The Federal Government passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 in response to the drug epidemic. This act established five drug classifications, or schedules. What schedule a drug is placed in is determined by the legitimacy and value of potential medical uses, along with the potential for abuse and the level of risk of addiction. The exception to this is international treaties. The United States must classify certain drugs in certain schedules to comply with certain diplomatic agreements, such as the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
Schedule V drugs have the fewest regulations and lowest penalties of any federal drug classification. Schedule V drugs have a legitimate accepted medical purpose, have a lower potential for abuse than Schedule IV drugs, and have a lower potential for addiction than Schedule IV drugs. Examples include:
Schedule IV drugs have regulations and penalties in between those of Schedule V and Schedule III drugs. Schedule IV drugs have a legitimate accepted medical purpose, have a low potential for abuse, and have a low potential for addiction. Examples include:
Schedule III drugs have more regulations and harsher penalties than Schedule IV drugs and fewer regulations and less severe penalties than Schedule II drugs. Schedule III drugs have a legitimate acceptable medical purpose, have a lower abuse potential than Schedule I and II drugs, and have a moderate or low potential for addiction. Examples of Schedule III drugs include:
Schedule II drugs have more regulations and harsher penalties than any drug classification other than Schedule I drugs. Schedule II drugs have a legitimate accepted medical use, a high potential for abuse, and a severe dependence risk. Examples of Schedule II drugs include:
Schedule I drugs have the most regulations and harshest penalties of any drugs. Schedule I drugs have no legitimate accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Examples of Schedule I drugs include:
Don’t Let Any Drug Ruin Your Life
It doesn’t matter whether you or a loved one are addicted to a Schedule V benzodiazepine or a Schedule I opioid. Addiction is a terrible condition, and it holds you back from leading the life you deserve to live. While all drug classifications will require specialized treatment, there is a rehab center out there that can help you. Contact a treatment expert now to find the best treatment option for your situation.
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