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Drug Categories

The term “drugs” is very broad, encompassing over-the-counter, behind-the-counter prescription and illicit substances. Generally speaking, a drug is a chemical substance that changes a body’s normal functions once absorbed. There are different meanings in the worlds of medicine and law. In the U.S., the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act defines “drug” as “articles intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease in man or other animals.”


Although medicine is a broad term, it is typically a drug a person takes to cure or relieve symptoms of an illness or medical condition. In addition, preventative drugs are medicine. The federal government regulates medicines including prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs and behind-the-counter preparations dispensed by a pharmacist that don’t require a doctor’s prescription.

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Recreational Drugs

Many people use drugs recreationally to experience a particular effect such as a high, rush, sense of calm or euphoria. Individuals often use psychoactive substances as a means to experience a heightened mood or pleasure. Many people also use drugs recreationally, but misuse or abuse are against the law. The government heavily regulates prescription drugs including opiates because of their potential to be habit-forming. Alcohol and tobacco are recreational drugs, but they are socially accepted and only regulated by age.

Illicit Drugs

Illicit, or illegal, drugs include substances such as heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, crystal meth, LSD and other hallucinogens. Many states approved marijuana for medicinal purposes. However, some states have legalized marijuana for recreational use. The legal system imposes criminal penalties to curb illegal drug use, but some argue the nation’s “war on drugs” is not effective. The market for illicit drugs is a billion dollar international business and is a taxing problem for local, state, national and international entities. The use of illegal drugs is also a societal problem, leading to misuse, abuse, dependence and full-blown addiction. Illegal drug use is also linked with a host of property and personal crimes, including theft, prostitution, shoplifting and robbery.

Prescription Drugs: Misuse And Abuse

Prescription drugs are useful in the treatment of many conditions and illnesses. Commonly abused classes of prescription drugs include: central nervous system depressants to treat anxiety and sleep disorders; stimulants used to treat ADHD and other disorders; and opiates, prescribed most often for pain relief. Opiates include morphine and codeine, along with synthetic and semi-synthetic opioids such as OxyContinVicodinFentanylNorcoDarvocetDilaudidTramadolLortab and Percocet. In 2006, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health said 16.2 million Americans age 12 and older had taken a prescription pain reliever, tranquilizer, sedative or stimulant non-medically at least once in the year prior to the survey.

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