An Addiction Science Network Resource

Hard and Soft Drugs—Position Statement


We feel that it is important to maintain the distinction between what are traditionally considered hard and soft drugs. In recent years this distinction has been blurred by the U.S. government in an attempt to discourage the use of “soft drugs” and to emphasize the government’s position that these drugs are really no different than “hard drugs.”  Furthermore, some people would consider the use of the term “soft drugs” to imply that no harm is associated with using these substances and to tacitly condone their use. We feel the distinction is important to realistically convey the relative risk of developing an addiction. This attribute is independent of any potentially adverse health-effects and does not address the sociopolitical issue of using any mildly psychoactive substance.



Traditional Distinction Amongst Drugs

“Hard Drugs”

“Soft Drugs”

Commonly Used Substances


ecstasy (MDMA)
diazepam (Valium)
most psychotherapeutic drugs1

alcoholic beverages
caffeine-containing products
nicotine-containing products
sugar-containing products

High addiction liability

Moderate to low addiction liability

Commonly used without apparent addiction2

Notes:    (1) abused in higher than therapeutically administered doses
(2) although problematic substance use can occur for all of these substances (e.g., alcoholism), these substances are also used by millions of people daily without developing an apparent addiction


There are clearly some drugs such as marijuana, ecstasy (MDMA), and the minor tranquilizers (e.g., diazepam) that rank as “soft drugs” in popular street vernacular and in terms of their effects on brain reward systems. There are also some commonly used substances such as caffeine and nicotine that clearly lack the strong effects on brain reward systems characteristic of highly addictive “hard drugs” such as amphetamine (crystal meth), cocaine (including crack), heroin, and oxycodone (OxyContin). Blurring these distinctions is irresponsible and can ultimately have adverse consequences—“mom and dad smoked cigarettes and easily quit, so smoking crack shouldn’t be any riskier;” “marijuana smoking hasn’t hurt me like the government claimed it would, so I suppose crystal meth isn’t any more dangerous.”


Greedy companies pursuing even greater profits (the more addictions the more money in addiction treatment products and services) and “public servants” and “philanthropic organizations” trying to assert their ‘moral values’ through government regulatory policies (the use of any psychoactive substance is considered bad by such a puritanical mentality and the government is seen as the instrument to suppress the use of these ‘evil’ substances) all ‘conspire’ to blur this important distinction. The ASNet’s position is not intended to promote the use of any psychoactive substance, but rather, to retain credibility for the important messages that science does have to convey to the public:


Speed Kills . . .

Read it, learn it, believe it!


Click here for our position statement on medical marijuana.


Also of interest is Distinguishing Drug Abuse from Drug Addiction which provides another reason the distinction between “hard” and “soft” drugs is important.



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