There are four main categories of drugs, grouped by their primary effects. These categories include the following:
There are also a few substances that don’t fit nicely into the main categories. An example would be MDMA, which is both a stimulant and a hallucinogen.
The Different Types of Drugs
Stimulants are addictive drugs that make people feel more energetic, alert, hyperactive, and talkative. However, they can be dangerous in high doses and result in death in some cases. Repeated use can also induce paranoia and psychosis. Withdrawal and “comedown” symptoms may include anxiety, irritability, and insomnia.
Two of the most common stimulants are cocaine and amphetamines. Cocaine (coke, blow) is an illicit drug derived from the leaves of the coca plant. It is often found in powder form that is snorted intranasally or rubbed onto the gums. Cocaine can also be processed into a rock-like crystal and smoked, commonly referred to as “crack.”
Amphetamines can be found in legal forms, such as Adderall, a medication used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. For a person with a medical need for Adderall, the drug induces a calming, focusing effect when used as directed. Amphetamines also hold the potential for addiction and are frequently abused for recreational purposes. They can make the average user feel more alert and focused, and result in an accelerated heart rate and feelings of increased energy.
Methamphetamine is mostly found illicitly, but it does have a very limited medical use. It most often takes on the form of a rock-like crystal, also referred to as “crystal meth.” It is usually smoked but can be ingested in other ways. Meth is highly addictive, and the chemicals used to produce it are incredibly toxic and highly flammable.
If used long term, cocaine and amphetamines can result in a variety of health problems and adverse consequences, including heart and respiratory problems.
Someone abusing cocaine or amphetamines will likely appear alert, hyperactive, and talkative. The user might also exhibit a loss of appetite and a reduced need for sleep. Drug paraphernalia may include aluminum foil, baggies, vials, rolled-up dollar bills, and pipes.
Depressants decrease activity in the central nervous system (CNS) and can make a person feel relaxed, mellow, and drowsy. They can be very addictive and, in high doses, may result in profound sedation and perilously slow breathing and heart rate.
Common sedatives include alcohol and benzodiazepines. Next to tobacco, alcohol is the most commonly abused substance in the U.S., as it is legal for persons to consume over the age of 21. It’s also easily accessible, even for those who are underage.
Alcohol is produced through a process called fermentation and comes several forms, including beer, wine, and liquor. Alcohol abuse can result in life-threatening health problems and consequences, including liver disease, falls, and auto accidents.
Like other depressants, Alcohol slows down the CNS. This effect can cause feelings of relaxation, confidence, and reduced inhibitions. It can also produce physical reactions, such as impaired coordination, memory, and a decreased ability to make sound decisions.
Alcohol is also a carcinogen, and chronic use increases the risk of a variety of cancers, including those of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon. Many medical professionals contend that any alcohol consumption can be harmful to one’s health.
Benzodiazepines are sedating drugs prescribed by doctors to treat various conditions, such as anxiety and seizures. Common benzodiazepines include alprazolam (Xanax) and diazepam (Valium). They are most often ingested in pill form but can be crushed and snorted.
Those who abuse them may do so without a prescription to self-medicate or feel relaxed and sedated. Benzodiazepines are fast-acting and have the potential for addiction. A regular user can develop a tolerance or a dependence upon benzodiazepines rapidly, even if they are not misusing them.
Side effects of benzodiazepines include drowsiness, confusion, and depression. Signs that someone could be abusing them include adverse changes in mood and behavior. The person may seem tired, lethargic, or disoriented, not unlike being drunk. Slurred speech and impaired coordination may also occur.
Opioids and opiates work on certain neurotransmitters in the CNS to reduce a person’s perception of pain. They can cause euphoria and drowsiness. These drugs are very addictive and dangerous to use in high doses and can cause profound CNS depression and death.
Opioids include prescription medications, such as hydrocodone (Vicodin) and oxycodone (OxyContin), as well as illicit fentanyl and heroin. These substances are derived from, or chemically similar to alkaloids found in the opium poppy.
Prescription opioids are typically administered as oral tablets if a physician prescribes them. However, they may also come in liquid form, as a transdermal patch, or in a lozenge. When abused, they can be crushed and snorted, smoked, or dissolved in water and injected into veins.
Opioids bind to opioid receptors in the human body and brain, blocking pain. In addition to providing pain relief, opioids produce feelings of euphoria and relaxation—especially when misused (taking the wrong dosage, using without a prescription). Side effects of opioids can include depression, nausea, confusion, and constipation.
Opioids can also cause tolerance to build rapidly as well as physical dependence. These conditions can drive users to take increasingly higher doses to experience relief and avoid withdrawal symptoms.
Signs that someone could be misusing opioids include changes in mood and behavior. A person who is actively misusing opioids may seem drowsy and disoriented. Heroin use often causes an effect known as being “on the nod.” When this occurs, the user goes in and out of consciousness appears to fall asleep while sitting or standing. Slurred speech and sluggish movements are also common effects.
Drug paraphernalia can include vials, needles, rubber tubing, and burnt spoons. As noted, when someone ingests opioids in high doses, their heart rate and breathing may become severely depressed. They may eventually stop breathing altogether, which, if left untreated, will result in death. Symptoms of overdose may include pinpoint pupils, unconsciousness, and respiratory depression.
Hallucinogens are substances that are mostly illegal and can produce mind-altering effects and visual and auditory disturbances. A person may feel a sense of depersonalization and detachment from his or her environment. They may also have vivid hallucinations, delusions, an altered perception of space and time, and spiritual experiences.
The use of these drugs can also cause nausea, paranoia, panic, and psychosis. Hallucinogens are not widely considered to be addictive in the chemical sense, but they may be habit-forming. Common hallucinogens include LSD, ketamine, psilocybin mushrooms, and peyote.
Depending on the substance, hallucinogens can be swallowed as a pill, placed on the tongue (e.g., blotter acid) or consumed in a liquid form, such as being brewed in a tea. They can also be snorted, injected, or inhaled. A person using hallucinogens may appear to be experiencing visual disturbances, paranoia, mood disturbances, hallucinations, and difficulty concentrating.
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