What Are Drugs?

Demystify 'What are drugs?' Explore their classifications, impacts, and the road to recovery.

Understanding Drug Classifications

Before delving into the specifics of 'what are drugs?', it's crucial to understand the genesis of the term and how different substances are classified under the law.

Origins of the Term "Drug"

The term "drug" traces its roots back to Middle English, where it was referred to as "drogge". Over time, the term has evolved and broadened, encompassing a wide variety of substances, from those used for medicinal purposes to those misused recreationally. Understanding this broad definition is the first step in answering the question, 'what are drugs?'.

The Controlled Substances Act

In the United States, the classification of drugs for regulatory purposes falls under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). This Act is Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which separates drugs into classes or schedules based on potential medical use, potential for misuse, and addiction risk.

The CSA categorizes drugs into five schedules. Schedule I drugs are considered the most dangerous due to their high potential for misuse and lack of accepted medical use. This category includes substances like heroin and LSD. On the other end of the spectrum, Schedule V drugs have a low potential for misuse and are often used medicinally. These include substances like cough suppressants containing small amounts of codeine.

Understanding these classifications is crucial, not only for legal purposes but also for those seeking to understand and overcome addiction. It provides a framework for understanding the varying levels of risk associated with different drugs, helping individuals make informed decisions about their health and well-being.

In the upcoming sections, we'll delve deeper into the different schedules of drugs, the most commonly used drugs and their effects, and the impact of recreational drug use. Throughout this discussion, we'll be linking to our other resources, including articles on addiction vs. dependence, the stages of change, and more.

Classification of Drugs

In the United States, drugs are classified into different schedules based on their accepted medical use and their potential for misuse or addiction. Understanding these classifications is essential in the discussion of 'what are drugs?'.

Schedule I Drugs

According to the Sana Lake Recovery, Schedule I drugs are the most regulated and carry the harshest penalties. These substances do not have a recognized medical purpose and have a high risk of misuse and addiction. Examples of Schedule I drugs include heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. It's important to note that marijuana, made from the hemp plant Cannabis sativa, is also classified as a Schedule I drug, despite its legalization in certain states.

Schedule II Drugs

Schedule II drugs do have a recognized medical purpose but carry a high risk of misuse and a severe risk of addiction. Some examples of Schedule II drugs include cocaine, methamphetamine, and oxycodone. As these substances have a high potential for addiction, they are strictly regulated [2].

Schedule III Drugs

Schedule III drugs have a lower risk of misuse compared to Schedule I and II drugs and carry a low to medium risk of addiction. These substances also have a recognized medical use. Examples of Schedule III drugs include ketamine, anabolic steroids, and testosterone.

Schedule IV Drugs

Schedule IV drugs are known to have a medical purpose and carry a low risk of misuse and addiction. Some examples of Schedule IV drugs include Xanax, Valium, and Ambien. Despite their lower risk, misuse of these substances can still lead to addiction [2].

Understanding these classifications is crucial in addressing the complexities of drug use, misuse, and addiction. It helps set the stage for further discussions about the stages of change, distinguishing between addiction and dependence, and exploring different therapeutic interventions.

Commonly Used Drugs

Understanding what drugs are and their effects on the body is crucial in the discussion of addiction. This section focuses on four commonly used drugs: Marijuana, opioids, cocaine, and nicotine.


Marijuana, derived from the hemp plant Cannabis sativa, is one of the most commonly used drugs. The main psychoactive (mind-altering) chemical in marijuana is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. This compound is responsible for the "high" that users experience. Depending on the strain and consumption method, the effects of marijuana can vary. For more information on how marijuana interacts with other substances, refer to our article on marijuana and anesthesia.


Opioids are a class of drugs made from morphine, a natural substance extracted from the seed pod of various opium poppy plants [3]. They are often prescribed for pain relief but can lead to dependence and addiction if misused. Opioids can have severe withdrawal symptoms, and it's crucial to understand the difference between addiction and dependence when dealing with these drugs.


Cocaine is a powerfully addictive stimulant drug made from the leaves of the coca plant native to South America. It's known for its intense, euphoric effects but can also lead to dangerous health consequences, including heart disease, stroke, and severe mental health issues. It's essential to understand the stages of change when dealing with a cocaine addiction.


Nicotine is found in tobacco and is one of the most commonly used addictive substances. This addictive chemical is sometimes extracted from the plant for use in vaping devices [3]. Nicotine addiction can lead to health issues such as lung disease, heart disease, and a variety of cancers. For those seeking to quit nicotine, our article on how to cleanse & detox your liver from alcohol might provide some helpful insights.

Each of these substances can have profound effects on the body and brain, leading to potential misuse and addiction. It's crucial to understand these effects and the treatment options available when faced with addiction. For more information on alcohol, another commonly used substance, refer to our article what is alcohol?.

Effects of Drugs on the Brain

Understanding 'what are drugs?' involves more than just recognizing their physical characteristics or the ways they are used. It's also crucial to understand how these substances impact the brain's functioning.

Neuronal Signaling and Drugs

Drugs interfere with the way neurons send, receive, and process signals via neurotransmitters. Some drugs, such as marijuana and heroin, can activate neurons because their chemical structure mimics that of a natural neurotransmitter in the body. This enables these drugs to attach onto and activate neurons [4].

Other drugs, like amphetamine or cocaine, can cause the neurons to release abnormally large amounts of natural neurotransmitters or prevent the normal recycling of these brain chemicals by interfering with transporters. This leads to an amplified message, disrupting communication channels.

Brain Areas Affected by Drug Use

Specific brain areas are greatly affected by drug use, including the basal ganglia, which forms part of the reward circuit, and the brain stem, which controls basic functions critical to life. Surges of chemical signaling compounds, including the body’s natural opioids (endorphins) and other neurotransmitters in parts of the basal ganglia, are involved in producing pleasure or euphoria from drugs [4].

The difference between normal rewards and drug rewards is significant. It can be likened to the difference between someone whispering into your ear and someone shouting into a microphone. Over time, drugs can lead to a reduced ability to experience pleasure from natural rewards, resulting in the need for larger amounts of the drug to produce the familiar high. This is known as tolerance, a key factor in addiction vs. dependence.

Understanding the effects of drugs on the brain is a critical component of comprehending 'what are drugs?' and their impact on individuals and society. This knowledge is fundamental to forming strategies for recovery, including approaches focused on stages of change and how to cleanse & detox your liver from alcohol](https://www.aristarecovery.com/blog/how-to-cleanse-and-detox-your-liver-from-alcohol).

Recreational Drug Use

Understanding the term 'recreational drug use' is integral to exploring the broader question: what are drugs? In this section, we'll define recreational drug use, categorize the drugs often used for such purposes, and discuss its prevalence.

Definition and Categories

Recreational drug use involves the use of one or more psychoactive drugs to induce an altered state of consciousness for pleasure or casual purposes [5]. These drugs are often categorized into three primary classes: depressants, stimulants, and hallucinogens.

Depressants, such as alcohol, slow down the activity of the central nervous system and can lead to relaxation and reduced anxiety. Stimulants, like nicotine and cocaine, speed up the brain's activity and can produce increased alertness and energy. Hallucinogens, such as LSD and cannabis, can alter perception, thoughts, and feelings, often leading to an experience of 'tripping.'

It's important to note that while these substances may induce temporary feelings of enjoyment or relaxation, they also carry significant health risks, especially when used irresponsibly. Recreational drug use can lead to harmful effects on the body and brain, including addiction and dependence, as explored in our addiction vs. dependence article.

Prevalence of Recreational Drug Use

Recreational drug use is a global phenomenon. As of 2015, it is estimated that about 5% of people worldwide aged 15 to 65 (158 million to 351 million) had used controlled drugs at least once [5]. Common recreational drugs include caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, cannabis, and controlled substances like cannabis, cocaine, opioids, MDMA, and others.

The prevalence of recreational drug use underscores the importance of responsible drug use education. Such efforts aim to prevent users from engaging in risky activities while under the influence, such as driving, swimming, or operating machinery. Moreover, governments worldwide have introduced laws prohibiting the possession of recreational drugs to curtail drug use.

However, the effectiveness of these measures is a topic of ongoing debate. For instance, the "War on Drugs" promoted by the United States has faced increasing criticism, and there is insufficient evidence to determine if behavioral interventions help prevent recreational drug use in children.

The impact of recreational drug use varies greatly from person to person, influenced by factors such as the quality and strength of the drug. As illegal drugs are not controlled substances, they can differ in quality and potency from batch to batch, leading to unpredictable effects.

For those in Kansas, USA, and elsewhere, grappling with the impacts of drug use, there are resources available to help navigate the path to recovery. Our articles on the stages of change and how to cleanse & detox your liver from alcohol offer valuable insights into the journey towards sobriety.

Impact of Drugs on the Body

When discussing 'what are drugs?', it's crucial to understand the various impacts these substances can have on the body. Drugs can affect the body in various ways, with effects varying from person to person. The impact of a drug on an individual is influenced by factors such as the quality and strength of the drug, as illegal drugs are not controlled substances and may differ in quality and potency from batch to batch.

Short-term Effects

Drugs can produce a range of short-term effects, both physical and psychological. These effects can alter the way a person thinks, feels, and behaves. Depending on the type of drug used, effects may include increased heart rate, drowsiness, agitation, paranoia, and euphoria. It's important to note that the use of drugs, even once, can have serious health consequences, such as overdose or sudden death. Mixing different types of drugs, including over-the-counter or prescribed medications, can be unpredictable and dangerous.

Long-term Effects

Over time, regular drug use can lead to long-term effects on both physical and mental health. These may include liver damage, heart disease, mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety, and neurological damage. For more information about specific drugs and their potential effects, please refer to our articles on marijuana and anesthesia, alcohol and naproxen, and what is alcohol?.

Tolerance and Dependence

Regular use of drugs over an extended period can lead to tolerance and dependence. Tolerance refers to the need for larger doses of the drug to achieve the same effect. Dependence, on the other hand, can be psychological, physical, or a combination of both. This means that drug use can become more important than other activities in a person's life, which can lead to significant problems in their personal and professional lives. For a more detailed discussion on this topic, please refer to our article on addiction vs. dependence.

In conclusion, it's important to understand that while drugs can produce feelings of euphoria or relief in the short term, their long-term effects can be devastating. If you or someone you know is struggling with drug dependence, it may be helpful to familiarize yourself with the stages of change as a framework for understanding the process of recovery.


[1]: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/drug

[2]: https://sanalake.com/addiction-resources/drug-classifications/

[3]: https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/commonly-used-drugs-charts

[4]: https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drugs-brain

[5]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recreationaldruguse

[6]: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/How-drugs-affect-your-body

Don't Wait. Healing is a Phone Call Away.

Arista Recovery is here to help. We are committed to healing everyone who enters our doors from the inside out. No matter what stage our guests enter treatment, we strive to meet them right where they are.

Get Help Now