What Are Drug Classifications?

Drug classifications are a way to organize drugs into categories. There are many reasons to do this.

Classifying drugs by chemical similarities is useful because drugs that are chemically similar often have similar impacts and risks. An individual who is addicted to a drug is also more likely to abuse and become addicted to another drug if it is chemically similar. Also, the same treatment is often effective for chemically similar drugs. Despite these generalities, chemically similar drugs may have very different legal and medical impacts.

Many people classify drugs by how they impact the mind and body. For example, some drugs have a tendency to make a user active and energetic while others make an individual feel relaxed and calm. Many of these drug classifications have little basis in chemical similarity or legal outcomes, although there is often overlap.

Most countries have a legal classification system for drugs. These systems determine the circumstances, if any, under which that drug is legal, various requirements for that drug, and any legal penalties associated with possession, distribution, or manufacture of it. Legal classifications are generally based on the perceived medical value of a drug and its perceived risk and danger.

There is a considerable disagreement about how drugs should be classified, even among experts. This means that the same drug may be classified differently under two schemes or two systems may use categories with the same name. Due to these disagreements, it’s impossible to create a “definitive” set of drug classifications. However, some of the most common are listed below.

Drug Classifications Based on Chemical Makeup

Alcohol

Alcohol is the most widely abused substance across most of the world, including in the United States. Legal to some extent in all 50 states, alcohol impacts numerous body systems, which in turn causes numerous effects in users. Alcohol creates feelings of euphoria and lowers inhibitions, but it also severely impairs judgment, perception, and reaction times. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, but it causes the most severe long-term damage to the liver. There are many forms of alcohol, including:

  • Beer
  • Wine
  • Liquor

Opioids

Also called opiates, opioids are either derived from the drug opium or chemicals designed to mimic it. Opioids work by interacting with neurotransmitters in the brain and blocking the signals that they are sending. This enables opioids to serve as powerful pain killers, but it also can cause feelings of intense pleasure, leading to addiction. Opioid addiction is one of the most serious problems faced by America today. Opioids are some of the most addictive of all known substances, and they are also some of the deadliest. Some of the most well-known opioids include:

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines, or Benzos, are a class of drugs that function by interacting with the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid-A (GABA-A). Each Benzo interacts with GABA-A differently, which is why each Benzo impacts the body and mind differently. Benzos are prescribed to treat a wide variety of psychiatric and sleep conditions, but they are very commonly abused. Benzos are highly addictive, and can cause numerous medical and psychiatric problems when not used as intended. Examples of Benzos include:

Cannabinoids

Cannabinoids are a class of drugs that are chemically similar to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active agent in marijuana. Cannabinoids create feelings of elation, known as a high, but they also negatively impact mental and physical functioning. Cannabinoids are the most widely abused drugs after alcohol, and they are increasingly gaining legal acceptance. Although considered less addictive than other drug classifications, cannabinoids can seriously damage a person’s mental and physical health. Examples of cannabinoids include:

Barbiturates

Barbiturates act on the central nervous system by slowing down its functioning. Barbiturates are derivatives of the chemical barbituric acid. Barbiturates were historically popular for the treatment of psychiatric and sleep disorders, and they are still used for anesthesia and treatment of a number of conditions such as epilepsy and headaches. Barbiturates are highly addictive, and they also present a very high overdose risk as they cause many body systems to shut down. Examples of barbiturates include: