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Different types of drugs on a table

The 7 Drug Categories Explained

Countless factors contribute to each person’s addiction story, and the types of drugs they use is one of them. 

To effectively understand the nature of a loved one’s addiction, you have to go beyond identifying whether it’s a recreational or prescription drug that led to their substance use disorder. 

It’s crucial to learn more and delve deeper into the different types of drugs and drug categories to grasp how they work, their potential risk of misuse and abuse, and their adverse consequences.

Here’s a complete list of all seven general drug categories according to their effect on users.

1. Depressants

What Are Depressants?

Depressants are also known as central nervous system (CNS) depressants, tranquillizers, or “downers.” They are substances that reduce arousal or brain stimulation, slowing down the body’s natural response and affecting coordination and concentration.

Most Common Types of Depressants

Prescription Depressants

Prescription depressants are given to individuals with anxiety, insomnia, obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other related mental health conditions. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, they can be classified into three main groups:

  • Barbiturates: Mephobarbital (Mebaral®), phenobarbital (Luminal®), and sodium pentobarbital (Nembutal®)
  • Benzodiazepines: Alprazolam (Xanax®), clonazepam (Klonopin®), diazepam (Valium®), estazolam (ProSom®), and lorazepam (Ativan®)
  • Sleep Medications: Eszopiclone (Lunesta®), zolpidem (Ambien®), and zaleplon (Sonata®)

When prescribed by a registered health professional, depressant drugs can be beneficial in easing anxiousness and sleep deprivation that have affected a person’s overall quality of life.

A person dealing with anxiety


Most people pop a bottle of wine to unwind or relax after an exhausting day’s work. The first few sips may create a stimulating effect as the alcohol signals your brain to release dopamine, the so-called “happy hormone,” boosting your energy, reducing inhibitions, increasing heart rate, and delivering that feel-good high.

However, as you drink more and your blood alcohol levels (BAC) spike, the depressant effects will start to kick in. They suppress your dopamine production and make you feel sad, sleepy, lethargic, and disoriented. Researchers suggest that people who experience more stimulating effects and fewer sedative effects are at a higher risk of developing alcoholism.

Depressant Addiction Rates

Unfortunately, like other drug categories, depressants have a significant risk of drug abuse and dependency. Because they also bring feelings of euphoria, they may be used as an unhealthy coping mechanism when dealing with overwhelming emotions or an underlying mental illness, which can eventually lead to a full-on addiction, relapse, or worse, a fatal drug overdose.

2. Stimulants

What are Stimulants?

Stimulants are a group of drugs that speed up communication between the brain and the body. Popularly known as “uppers,” this drug category is sought to get that sense of rush, intense levels of energy, hyper-focus, and wakefulness.

Most Common Types of Stimulants

The most notoriously known and highly addictive illicit stimulant drugs are:

However, there are also stimulant prescription medications used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy, which is a medical condition where one goes through uncontrollable episodes of sleep. These include:

  • Dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine®);
  • Dextroamphetamine/amphetamine combination product (Adderall®); and
  • Methylphenidate (Ritalin® and Concerta®).

Short-Term & Long-Term Effects of Stimulant Drugs

High doses of stimulants can cause overstimulation that triggers anxiety disorders, panic attacks, seizures, tremors, aggressive behaviours, and paranoia. Like other drug categories, long-term exposure to stimulants can cause adverse health and psychological side effects, such as:

  • Schizophrenia;
  • Depression;
  • Psychosis;
  • Gastrointestinal issues;
  • Cerebral hemorrhage;
  • Cardiovascular damage; and
  • Stroke. 

Stimulant Addiction Rates

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, five million American adults misuse prescription stimulants every year. In many cases, this misuse leads to addiction. 

Like other categories of drugs, prescription stimulants can be abused or misused when you’re:

  • Taking it at a higher dose or frequency other than what your doctor indicated;
  • Taking someone else’s medication; 
  • Mixing it with other drugs or alcohol; or
  • Only taking it to get high. 

People abusing stimulant drugs usually:

  • Take them orally; 
  • Crush the tablets or split capsules to dissolve the powder into beverages;
  • Snort it through their nose;
  • Smoke it; or 
  • Inject it intravenously.

3. Psychedelics or Hallucinogens

What are Psychedelics or Hallucinogens?

Psychedelics or hallucinogens are among the most distinct drug categories that alter the user’s perception, mood, and cognitive processes. They can impact a person’s sense of time and distort their idea of reality with hallucinations or delusions of seeing or hearing things that may not exist or others cannot see.

Most Common Types of Psychedelics & Hallucinogens

The most commonly abused psychedelics are:

  • LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide);
  • Psilocybin or magic mushrooms;
  • NBOMes (N-methoxybenzyl);
  • DMT (N-Dimethyltryptamine); and
  • Ayahuasca, a plant-based psychedelic. 

Most psychedelics are usually swallowed, smoked, inhaled, or ingested sublingually, while mushrooms can be consumed fresh, cooked, or brewed to make tea.

a close up of an LSD tab on a microscope between tweezers

“Bad Trips” from Psychedelic Drugs

Using huge amounts of potent psychedelic drugs may result in a bad trip. This involves extremely scary or disturbing hallucinations, which may cause a sudden panic attack and trigger unpredictable behaviours, like screaming, acting violently, or running out into the street.

Unfortunately, some people may suffer from a bad trip for an extended period, develop substance-induced mental illnesses, get into life-threatening accidents, or attempt suicide.

Psychedelics & Hallucinogens Addiction Rates

According to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, among people aged 12 or older, 2.6%—or approximately 7.1 million people—reported using hallucinogens in the past 12 months.

Psychedelics and hallucinogens can be addictive and come with side effects, including altering a person’s thinking, sense of time and emotions. This is what makes these drugs extremely dangerous. 

4. Dissociatives

What are Dissociatives?

Dissociative anesthetics are another class of psychedelics that disconnects or detaches the user from reality, giving them an illusion of watching themselves outside their body. These types of drugs are typically smoked, snorted, inhaled, or injected intramuscularly.

Most Common Types of Dissociative Drugs

Examples of dissociative drugs include:

  • Ketamine;
  • Methoxetamine; and
  • Nitrous oxide. 

The use of dissociative drugs can be especially harmful when taken in significant doses, combined with substances from other drug categories, used in unsafe environments, or while driving or operating heavy equipment. They are also prone to causing drug tolerance and addiction.

Dissociative Addiction Rates

Just like with other drug categories, dissociative drugs have a high risk of abuse and dependency. Unfortunately, since the drug allows users to detach from themselves and the environment, the feeling can be extremely addictive. 

5. Opioids

What are Opioids?

Opioids are natural or synthetic types of drugs derived from or related to the opium poppy. Opiates, on the other hand, are a subset directly derived from the opium poppy plant.

Most Common Types of Opioids

  • Heroin: An opioid drug made from morphine, a natural substance extracted from the seed pod of various opium poppy plants.
  • Fentanyl: A synthetic opioid analgesic that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.
  • Other opioid-based painkillers: Examples include oxycodone (OxyContin®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), and codeine.

Is it Always Dangerous to Take Opioids?

Generally, opioid-based medications can be harmless when taken for a short period and according to a doctor’s prescription. However, regular or prolonged use of opioids—even with a physician’s recommendation—can lead to dependence and, when misused, pave the way for addiction, overdose incidents, and even death.

Opioid Addiction Rates

Opioid abuse is a large-scale pandemic affecting people in almost every part of North America. In fact, studies from 2019 showed that an estimated 10.1 million people aged 12 or older misused opioids in the year prior.

Every year, billions of dollars worth of grants are given to state and local communities to prevent opioid use and help those who become addicted. Unfortunately, this isn’t always successful, as it’s estimated that 16 million individuals worldwide have had or currently suffer from opioid use disorder (OUD).

6. Cannabinoids

What are Cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids are a group of substances found in the cannabis plant. This drug category, specifically the psychoactive compound found in the plant, goes by many names including Mary Jane, ganja, weed, or pot. Cannabis can come in various forms and can be smoked, vaped, or consumed as an edible.

 jars of cannabis stacked on top of each other

Most Common Types of Cannabinoids

There are three main types of cannabinoids: 

  • Phytocannabinoids: cannabinoids that come from plants
  • Endocannabinoidannabin: cannabinoids produced by the human body
  • Synthetic cannabinoids: cannabinoids created in a laboratory 

Cannabinoid Addiction Rates

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reveals that abusing marijuana at a young age can produce long-term side effects, which range from:

  • Cognitive damage;
  • Impaired driving function;
  • Higher risk for mental illness;
  • Poorer life satisfaction; and
  • Marijuana addiction. 

As noted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, marijuana is the most commonly used federally illegal drug in the United States. Nearly 50 million people used it at least once in 2019. Furthermore, an estimated 30% of people who use marijuana have a marijuana use disorder. 

7. Empathogens

What are Empathogens?

Empathogens or entactogens are psychoactive substances that intensify feelings of empathy and sympathy. They make users feel more confident, friendly, playful, and socially accepted. The downside is that substances under this drug category can also cause dehydration and depression.

Most Common Types of Empathogens

The most common example of empathogens is MDMA, also known as ecstasy or molly, a popular party drug in the form of colourful tablets that are either swallowed or snorted.

Other types include but are not limited to MDA, mephedrone, Butylone, PMA, and ethylone.

While all of these are unique to one another, they share many of the same side effects.

  • Mood swings;
  • Depression;
  • Dehydration;
  • Increased feelings of love; and
  • Increased empathy.  

Empathogen Addiction Rates

Often referred to as “smart drugs,” empathogens are extremely addictive. One use is often enough to put the user on the path to a treatment facility. 

The primary risk of empathogens is mixing use with other drugs and/or alcohol. Combining can exacerbate mental health problems, increase physical activity to dangerous levels, and potentially result in an overdose. 

A group of people in treatment for addiction

Addiction Treatment For All Types of Drugs

Freedom From Addiction uses evidence-based treatments and medically guided drug detox programs to address dependence and substance use disorders involving all seven major drug categories.

To learn more about our drug addiction treatments, please do not hesitate to reach out to us online. A member of our team will get back to you shortly.


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