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What is the Difference Between Hard and Soft Drugs?

While many people understand the dangers of using drugs, it remains common to experiment with substances. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 70.3 million people aged 12 or older used illicit drugs in 2022.[1]

If you know people who have tried drugs before, you have probably heard of the term “hard drugs.” Most people say that they will never touch that group of substances, but which drugs are considered hard drugs?

Hard drugs consist of the substances that are considered to be the most dangerous, such as heroin, meth, and crack. Some substances are considered “soft drugs,” which means they are considered to be less hazardous than others. Soft drugs might include substances like alcohol, marijuana, and nicotine.

While hard drugs might be more likely to result in life-threatening overdoses, that does not mean that soft drugs are safe to misuse. Any substance can lead to addiction, health risks, and even psychological damage.

In this article, you will learn:

  • The difference between hard and soft drugs
  • Which substances are considered “hard” and “soft”
  • Why soft drugs are just as dangerous to misuse
  • How to tell if you are suffering from a substance use disorder

Hard Drugs vs Soft Drugs

The hard and soft categories that people put drugs into are not official or scientific in any manner. This categorization was simply created based on public perceptions of which drugs are “more dangerous” than others. Hard drugs are thought to be more toxic and dangerous to your health than soft ones, which is not necessarily true.

Both soft and hard drugs can be incredibly harmful. Abusing any type of substance can lead to drug addiction, health problems, and mental health side effects. That said, abusing hard drugs does increase the risk of a life-threatening overdose.

What are Hard Drugs?

Hard drugs are considered the more intense or dangerous substances to use. There is more social stigma associated with taking these drugs.

Hard substances might include:

Illegal drugs like cocaine and heroin are considered more dangerous to abuse by the general public, making them a part of the list of hard drugs. However, some individuals might consider prescription medications like Adderall or oxycodone a part of the same category.

Some of the risks of abusing hard drugs include addiction, weight loss, high blood pressure, increased heart rate, overdose, and more.

What are Soft Drugs?

Soft drugs are considered less harmful than hard ones. However, this is simply because it is considered more socially acceptable to use them. Soft substances can still lead to dependence, addiction, and long-term health conditions.

Examples of soft drugs include:

  • Alcohol
  • Nicotine
  • Marijuana
  • Natural psychedelics like psilocybin mushrooms

You may have a lower chance of immediate danger like overdose when abusing soft drugs, but that is the only difference between hard and soft drugs. You’d still need professional addiction treatment to overcome frequent use of these drugs to recover.

Why Soft Drugs Can Be Just as Dangerous as Hard Drugs

It’s easy to view soft drugs as safe to use, especially because so many people consume substances like alcohol and marijuana. For the sake of understanding, take alcohol as an example. There are many short and long-term risks associated with abusing alcohol in high doses.

For starters, alcohol lowers your inhibition and makes you more likely to engage in risky behaviors. Even further, there were more than 178,000 alcohol-related deaths in the United States from 2020 to 2021 and 32% of driving-related fatalities involved alcohol in 2022.[2]

Take another commonly abused soft substance for example: marijuana. Marijuana, which is used by millions of people in the United States, can still lead to dependence and addiction. About 3 in 10 people who use marijuana develop an addiction.[3]

Soft drugs can be just as dangerous as hard ones when they are misused. Just because you aren’t abusing a stigmatized drug like black tar heroin does not mean that your substance abuse is safe.

How to Tell if You Are Struggling With Addiction

Whether you are abusing soft or hard drugs, you can develop an addiction.

Signs of addiction include:[4]

  • Using more of a substance than you intended to
  • Having a hard time stopping or moderating your drug use
  • Wanting to quit using drugs but being unsuccessful
  • Experiencing urges or cravings to abuse a substance
  • Continuing to use a substance despite facing problems at home, school, or work
  • Experiencing physical or mental health problems because of substance abuse
  • Having to increase the dose of a substance to experience the desired effect
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you stop using a substance

Find Help for Substance Abuse

If you or a loved one suffers from addiction, it’s time to seek professional help. At the Mandala Healing Center, we offer evidence-based services and compassionate care to help you regain control over your life.

Contact us today for more information on our drug and alcohol rehab program.


  1. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): HHS, SAMHSA Release 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health Data
  2. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA): Alcohol-Related Emergencies and Deaths in the United States
  3. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Understanding Your Risk for Cannabis Use Disorder
  4. The National Library of Medicine (NLM): Substance Use Screening and Risk Assessment in Adults [Internet].