The term ‘drug’ has many meanings. The most common definitions describe their influence on the central nervous system and the chemical components manufactured within each substance. Yet, for the sake of this article, I’m going to define the term ‘drug’ as a substance used in the diagnosis, treatment or prevention of disease as the primary components of a medication.

Evaluating drugs through this lens can be useful in better understanding substances illegally obtain and/or abused for the purposes of criminal prosecution. In response to regulating the illegal use of drugs, federal and state governments combined forces to devise laws for medical practitioners and law enforcement alike to classify drugs by their level of toxicity.

The Controlled Substance Act (Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970) is a compilation of many laws which regulate the manufacturing and distribution of drugs classified as narcotics, stimulants, depressants, hallucinogens, anabolic steroids (synthetic testosterone) and any chemical used to produce illicit controlled substances. This type of coding is known as drug classification. All drugs are classified in relation to chemical elements of their active ingredients or by the way the substance is used to treat medical conditions.

Narcotics can be described as a group of medicines that relieve acute to chronic pain by binding to opioid receptors. Opioid receptors can be found primarily in the brain and in other areas of the body (digestive tract, respiratory tract and spinal cord). Narcotics are also referred to as opiates or opioid analgesics, which cause the person ingesting them to feel a sense of reward. Addiction to narcotics is directly linked to this feeling of reward (, 2017). Drugs like morphine and codeine are alkaloid opiates, which means they occur naturally (, 2017). Drugs like heroin and hydrocodone are considered semi-synthetic because they are created by modifying the drug morphine (, 2017).

Stimulants are sometimes referred to as ‘uppers.’ They cause a feeling of increased self-confidence and improved mood. Stimulants increase activity in the brain by ‘stimulating’ the central nervous system. There are different types of stimulants and each offer unique effects like being more alert, decreased fatigue or the ability to partake in prolonged physical activity. However, there are downsides to stimulants: increase in heart rate, blood pressure and bodily temperature. Substances like caffeine, nicotine, cocaine and amphetamines are all drugs classified as stimulants (, 2017).

Depressants (sedatives or tranquilizers) are the yang to stimulant’s yin and therefore classified as ‘downers’. Depressants work to slow down normal brain functioning (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2016). This process is achieved by enhancing the effect of neurotransmitters (GABA), which calm the operations taking place inside the central nervous system. Depressants can be further classified as either ethyl alcohol, opiates, benzodiazepines and barbiturates. Depressants are commonly prescribed to treat conditions like insomnia, anxiety or ADHD. Depressants reduce inhibition and increase the feeling of pleasure, thus making them a popularly abused drug.

Hallucinogens are drugs classified by their ability to produce profound distortions in one’s perception of reality, intense emotional swings, graphic images and hearing or feeling sensations that aren’t there. Hallucinogens can occur naturally in plants and mushrooms or be a manufactured product. They are broadly classified as either a classic (ex. LSD) or dissociative drug (ex. PCP). Different hallucinogens have unique effects inside the body; physical symptoms often noted among those who ingest hallucinogens are an increase in energy and heart rate with nausea (NIH, 2015).

The Drug Enforcement Agency created drug scheduling as a rating system that determines which drugs have a higher potential for being abused. The rating system conforms to a range of drugs classified as Schedule I through Schedule V. State laws will vary when it comes to drug scheduling. This is due in part to each state’s desire to decrease the abuse of specific illegal substances that have produced risks and challenges for their own communities. Additionally, serving as the methodology for prosecuting drug offenders and repeat offenders. Schedules should closely mimic the predefined course set by the Federal government. At current, only two entities have the authority to classify substances under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and those are the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. In regards to the scheduling system, the CSA deciphers allowances and restriction in the areas of drug possession, manufacturing, importation, use and distribution.

Schedule I Controlled Substances include drugs like heroin, hallucinogens, marijuana and ecstasy and have no defined medicinal purposes. They also have the greatest potential for abuse.

Schedule II Controlled Substances include drugs like cocaine morphine, methadone and hydrocodone. They are classified as having a high potential for abuse, but also have an accepted medicinal purpose.

Schedule III Controlled Substances include drugs like anabolic steroids, codeine and testosterone. They are considered to have a moderated to low potential for abuse. Codeine is most commonly abused from this schedule of drugs due to its addictive and intoxicating qualities.

Schedule IV Controlled Substances include drugs like Xanax, Valium, Ativan and Klonopin. These drugs are considered to have a low potential for abuse when compared to other addictive substances.

Schedule V Controlled Substances have the lowest potential for abuse and included prescription medications. Medications used to control conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia are classified as Schedule V substances (Addiction Center, 2017).

To learn more about this topic please read, “United States Department of Justice’s Drug Schedules of Controlled Substances.”



Addiction Center. (2017). Retrieved from Understanding the Controlled Substances Act: (2017, June 02). Retrieved from Narcotic Analgesics:

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016, August). Retrieved from Misuse of prescription drugs: What are CNS depressants?:

NIH. (2015, February 1). Retrieved from Hallucinogens and dissociative drugs: (2017). Retrieved from What are stimulants? – Definition, Types & Examples:


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