How are drugs classified?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.


How are drugs classified?
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

What kinds of drugs are abused?

There are a whole lot of drugs that get abused and they are not all the ones you might recognize. Drugs are classified in a variety of ways. Which classification system you want to use is partially dependent on why you are classifying the drug. For our purpose in this post “drug” includes prescription medications, drugs of abuse, and things people give themselves to alter their sensory perception even if they are not always considered a drug. Here are some ways drugs can be classified.

Is this drug legal?

How law enforcement classifies and regulates drug use behavior impacts how we look at drugs in other contexts. The roots of the current 5 schedule system of drug classification for legal purposes are in the 1970 Controlled Substance act. Who can buy a drug; prescribe a drug and how this needs to be done, all fall under the legal classification system. Laws do not always fit neatly with the scientific evidence.  There are other posts, past and upcoming, about drug laws and regulations. You will find more drug info posts under Drug Use, Abuse, and Addiction.

Where does this drug come from?

Drugs can be plant or animal-based, synthetic as in manufactured in a lab, or semisynthetic, that is a plant-based drug that is modified in the lab.

Some people have tried to make the argument that plant-based drugs are “natural” therefore less dangerous than synthetic or man-made drugs. This is often used as an argument for the legalization of marijuana.

Some natural plant-based drugs are poisonous and can prove fatal even in very small doses. The Opioid’s come from one species of poppy plant but is very addicting and an overdose can be fatal. Other drugs like LSD-25 were originally isolated from plant material (a fungus growing on rye grain) but can easily be synthesized in the lab. Other life-saving drugs are completely synthetic. The plant vs. factory origin way of classifying drugs has not proved useful to my way of thinking.

What is this drug used for?

Is a drug an antidepressant or a blood pressure med? Many dissimilar chemicals may be used to treat the same condition. Drugs to treat ADHD can be stimulant drugs or there are non-stimulant alternatives. Pain relievers include aspirin and Opiates. Aspirin can be used to treat heart issues and Opiates can be listed as a drug of abuse. The same medication may help treat depression or be used to help you stop smoking. Classifying drugs by use is problematic at best especially when we are talking about drugs that may be abused.

What part of the body does this drug work on?

Heart med, blood med, or Liver med? Not all meds used to treat the heart do the same thing. Many drugs work on multiple parts of the body.  Drugs that are helpful in some places in the body eventually get broken down to be eliminated. A drug that is great for back pain may be harmful or even toxic to the kidney or liver where it needs to be removed from the body.

What is the chemical structure?

Some chemical structures have similar effects. There are a great many Barbiturates that are all similar in action. The contrary is that there are a great many compounds that end with “hydrochloride.” These can have extremely different properties.

What is its mechanism of action?

Drugs can be studied by how they do the things they do. Reuptake inhibitors stop the breakdown and recycling of neurotransmitters. While they may have similar mechanisms of action it matters which neurotransmitter they are prolonging.

What is its name?

Street names often describe the primary effects. Drugs can also be classified by chemical name, formula, or brand name.

Other possibilities for classifying drugs.

Uppers Downers and All Arounders.

Inaba in his book Uppers, Downers and All Arounders simplified drugs, particularly drugs of abuse, into three primary categories. Uppers mean drugs used for their stimulant properties. Downers are depressant drugs. All-Arounders are drugs that alter perception including hallucinogens and Deliriants.

People who abuse stimulant drugs may switch between cocaine and amphetamine depending on the price and availability but they like the stimulant feeling. Downers, those drugs used for their depressant characteristics, include Alcohol, Heroin, and other Opioids, and other central nervous system depressants.

The newest edition of his book also discusses some additional drugs that have mixed effects or do not fit neatly into the three group system but among drugs of abuse, the use of uppers and downers continues to be the largest part of what the substance use disorder treatment field treats.

Route of administration or method of use.

Inhalants can be any number of very dissimilar chemicals. Oral medications have in common only the way they enter the body as do injectable drugs.

You might also want to check out these other counselorssoapbox posts.

Drug Use, Abuse, and Addiction

More “What is” posts will be found at “What is.”

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Seven David Joel Miller Books are available now!

My newest book is now available. It was my opportunity to try on a new genre. I’ve been working on this book for several years, but now seem like the right time to publish it.

Story Bureau.

Story Bureau is a thrilling Dystopian Post-Apocalyptic adventure in the Surviving the Apocalypse series.

Baldwin struggles to survive life in a post-apocalyptic world where the government controls everything.

As society collapses and his family gets plunged into poverty, Baldwin takes a job in the capital city, working for a government agency called the Story Bureau. He discovers the Story Bureau is not a benign news outlet but a sinister government plot to manipulate society.

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Dark Family Secrets: Doris wants to get her life back, but small-town prejudice could shatter her dreams.

Casino Robbery Arthur Mitchell escapes the trauma of watching his girlfriend die. But the killers know he’s a witness and want him dead.

Planned Accidents  The second Arthur Mitchell and Plutus mystery.

Letters from the Dead: The third in the Arthur Mitchell mystery series.

What would you do if you found a letter to a detective describing a crime and you knew the writer and detective were dead, and you could be next?

Sasquatch. Three things about us, you should know. One, we have seen the past. Two, we’re trapped there. Three, I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to our own time.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Author Page – David Joel Miller

Want the latest blog posts as they publish? Subscribe to this blog.

For videos, see: Counselorssoapbox YouTube Video Channel

1 thought on “How are drugs classified?

  1. Pingback: Schedules of Controlled Substances. | counselorssoapbox

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.