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Classifying and Categorizing Drugs

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Drug Classifications

It is important to classify drugs
because there are thousands of different kinds—
both legal and illegal.

Drugs Classified by Chemical Makeup, Opioids, Alcohol, Benzodiazepines, Cannabinoids, Barbiturates, Drug Classifications by Effect, Depressants, Stimulants, Hallucinogens, Inhalants, Drug Classifications by Legal Definitions, Rehab is Your Best Chance

It is important to classify drugs because there are thousands of different kinds—both legal and illegal. The variety makes it necessary to categorize drugs into several types for various legal, medical, and treatment purposes.

There are many different ways to classify drugs. The most common classifications are by chemical similarities, by effects on the body and mind, and by legal definitions. Drug classifications make it possible to organize drugs into categories.

Even among experts, there is a considerable disagreement about how drugs should be classified. Due to these disagreements, it is not possible to establish a “definitive” set of classifications. However, there are generally accepted classifications that are widely used all over the world.

Drugs Classified by Chemical Makeup

Classifying drugs according to their chemical similarities is useful because drugs with similar chemical structures are likely to have similar impacts and effects. This means that their risks may also be similar. A person who is addicted to a drug is also more likely to abuse and become addicted to a drug that is chemically similar to the one they have been using.

At the same time, treatment for chemically similar drugs may be the same. However, despite these generalities, the legal and medical impacts are not always exactly the same, which is why other classifications exist.


Opioids, also known as opiates, refer to substances that are derived from the opium poppy plant. Technically speaking, opioids are the synthetic and semi-synthetic derivatives while opiates are naturally derived from the opium source. In common usage and in law enforcement, the two terms are used interchangeably.

Opioids and opiates work by interacting with neurotransmitters in the brain, blocking the signals they are sending. This blocks incoming pain signals, which is why these drugs make powerful pain relievers. However, they can also cause feelings of euphoria and intense pleasure, which can lead to abuse and addiction.

In fact, opioid addiction is a very serious problem in the US today. Opioids are some of the most addictive of all known substances—and they are also some of the deadliest. Because these drugs are widely prescribed, more people are exposed to its potential dangers. To avoid the deadly side effects of opioids, people should stick to their prescription and only take the proper dosage.
Some of the most well-known opioids include: oxycodone, Fentanyl, and heroin.



Alcohol is the most widely abused substance in the world—including the United States. It is legal to some extent in all 50 states. Because of how common it is, many people struggle with alcohol use disorder.

As a drug, alcohol impacts numerous body systems, causing a wide array of adverse health effects. Alcohol creates feelings of euphoria, reducing a person’s inhibitions and making them more sociable. As a depressant, it can cause severe long term damage especially to the liver. There are many forms of alcohol, including beer, wine, and liquor.


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Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs that interact with the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid-A (GABA-A). Each benzodiazepine interacts with GABA-A differently, causing different effects. These drugs are commonly prescribed to treat a wide variety of psychiatric and sleep conditions. However, just like opioids, they are often abused because they are highly addictive.

Examples of benzodiazepines include Ativan, Xanax, and Valium.


Cannabinoids are a class of drugs that have a similar chemical makeup to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), also known as the active agent in marijuana. THC is the compound that makes marijuana addictive. Cannabinoids can cause feelings of euphoria. However, they also negatively impact mental health and physical functioning.

Cannabinoids are the most widely abused drugs after alcohol. Examples of cannabinoids include marijuana and hashish.


Barbiturates are considered depressants because they act on the central nervous system and slow down its functioning. Barbiturates are derivatives of the chemical barbituric acid. Nowadays, barbiturates are still used for anesthesia and the treatment of certain conditions such as headaches and epilepsy.

Barbiturates are also known to be highly addictive. Additionally, they have a very high risk of overdose because they cause many body systems to shut down. Common examples of barbiturates are the following: Luminal, Amytal, and Pentobarbital.

Drug Classifications by Effect

Another way to classify drugs is by their effects and how they impact the mind and body. Some drugs slow down the body’s processes, making an individual feel relaxed, calm, and sleepy. Other drugs can make people more energetic and lively.


Substances mentioned above that can slow down the central nervous system are called depressants. They are also commonly referred to as “downers” because they create feelings of tiredness and relaxation. While they can serve legitimate purposes such as fighting sleep deprivation and blocking pain signals, they are usually abused because of the euphoric sensations they create.

Depressants are some of the most highly addictive drugs out there. They are also highly dangerous and likely to cause overdose. Alcohol, opioids, and barbiturates are all classified as depressants.




The opposite of depressants, stimulants are also called “uppers” because their primary use is to increase energy, concentration, and wakefulness. They are known to provide a “rush,” meaning they can increase productivity and performance. But just like depressants, stimulants also produce a high, making them very addictive. Adderall, cocaine, and methamphetamine are all stimulants.


Hallucinogens are known for altering a person’s perception of reality. When taken, hallucinogens cause auditory and visual hallucinations, also known as “tripping”. Although hallucinogens are generally less addictive than other drugs, their immediate effects are more severe and dangerous. Examples of hallucinogens include LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and PCP.



Inhalants refer to a vast range of substances that are ingested by breathing them in. Most inhalants are materials that are in no way designed to be ingested by humans, such as paint thinner, gasoline, and nail polish remover. Most of these chemicals can produce feelings of a high, which is why many people abuse them. It goes without saying that the use of inhalants is incredibly dangerous and causes many serious health effects.

Drugs can also be classified according to a certain legal system. These systems define the circumstances under which drugs are legal, if any. Legal classifications also help define the various requirements for drugs such as legal penalties for possession, distribution, and manufacture. Legal classifications are generally based on the medical value of a drug and its perceived risk and danger.

In 1970, the Federal Government passed the Controlled Substances Act as a response to the drug epidemic. The act established five drug classifications also known as “schedules”. A schedule categorizes drugs according to their potential medical value, potential for abuse, and risk of addiction. There are exceptions based on international treaties wherein the United States must classify drugs in certain schedules to comply with diplomatic agreements.

Schedule V

Schedule V drugs have the fewest regulations as well as the lowest penalties of any federal drug classification. They have a legitimate medical purpose and a significantly lower potential for abuse than Schedule IV drugs. Examples include Lomotil, Motofen, and Lyrica.

Schedule IV

Schedule IV drugs have more regulations and penalties than drugs in Schedule V. Schedule IV drugs have legitimate accepted medical uses and a low potential for abuse, therefore having a low potential for addiction. Examples include: Ambien, Tramadol, and Darvocet.

Schedule III

Although Schedule III drugs have a legitimate, acceptable medical purpose, they are riskier than Schedule IV drugs. Therefore these drugs have more regulations and harsher penalties.

Examples of Schedule III drugs include anabolic steroids, ketamine, and Vicodin.

Schedule II

Schedule II drugs have more regulations and harsher penalties than any drug classification except Schedule I drugs. Schedule II drugs have a legitimate accepted medical use, but a high potential for abuse. These drugs carry a severe risk for dependence. Examples of Schedule II drugs codeine, methadone, and Ritalin.

Schedule I

Schedule I drugs have a high potential for abuse and no legitimate accepted medical use. Therefore these drugs have the most regulations and the harshest penalties of any drugs. Ecstasy is an example of a Schedule I drug.

If someone in the family is struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, it is important to seek help. A combination of medical detox and behavioral therapy can go a long way in the fight against substance abuse. But because every individual is affected by addiction differently, a comprehensive program tailored to their specific needs is necessary. Look for a nearby addiction treatment facility today and find out how drug treatment programs work.

Rehab is Your Best Chance

Treatment is an addicted individualʼs best option if they want to recover. Beating an addiction not only requires eliminating the physical dependence, but also addressing the behavioral factors that prevent them from wanting to get better. Simply quitting may not change the psychological aspect of addiction. Some people quit for a while, and then take drugs again, only to overdose because they did not detox properly. Recovery involves changing the way the patient feels, thinks, and behaves.

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