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The 7 Categories of Drugs Explained

Countless factors contribute to each person’s addiction story, and the type of substance they used 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 also crucial to know more and delve deeper into the different drug categories to grasp how they actually work, their potential risk of misuse and abuse, and their adverse consequences.

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

1. 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.

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 has affected a person’s overall quality of life.

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.


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, suppressing your dopamine production and making 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.

A man stressed at work

2. 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.

Illicit and Prescription Stimulant Drugs 

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®)
  • Methylphenidate (Ritalin® and Concerta®)

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 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.

Short-Term and 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
  • Stroke

3. 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.

The most commonly abused psychedelics are:

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

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

“Bad Trips” from Psychedelic Drugs 

Using huge amounts of potent psychedelic drugs may result in a bad trip, where you end up with 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, developing substance-induced mental illnesses, getting into life-threatening accidents, or attempting suicide.

4. 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. Similar to other categories of drugs, dissociatives are typically smoked, snorted, inhaled, or injected intramuscularly.

Examples of dissociative drugs are:

  • Ketamine
  • Methoxetamine
  • 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.

an open prescription bottle on a table

5. Opioids 

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

  • 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 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.
  • Other opioid-based painkillers, such as oxycodone (OxyContin®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), and codeine.

Generally, opioid-based medications can be harmless when taken for a short period of time 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 to addiction, overdose incidents, and deaths.

6. Cannabis 

Cannabis, also known as marijuana, is a plant-derived type of drug widely sought-after for its pleasurable psychoactive effects produced by delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Cannabis goes by many names, including Mary Jane, dope, weed, or pot. It comes in various forms and can be smoked, vaped, or consumed as an edible.

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
  • Marijuana addiction

7. 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.

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

Drug Addiction Treatment 

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

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


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