drug types

What Are The 4 Types Of Drugs?

In terms of the four types of drugs most commonly abused in the UK, these are: Cannabis, Cocaine, Ecstasy, and Amphetamines. [1]

In terms of the four groups of drugs classified according to their major effects, these are: stimulants, depressants, opioids, and hallucinogens.

Another way of classifying drugs uses the Drugs Wheel model [2].

The Drugs Wheel replaces the 4 types of drugs with 7 categories.

These 7 types of drugs are: [3]


  • Desired effects: Can make a person feel relaxed or euphoric (high)
  • Negative effects: distorted recognition of things seen, heard or felt; poor body coordination; memory; difficulty paying attention
  • Examples of drugs: Cannabis (Marijuana, Hash, Skunk); Synthetic Cannabis (Spice)


  • Desired effects: Can make a person feel more awake or alert; increases energy
  • Negative effects: Aggressiveness, fearfulness, and paranoid feelings.
  • Examples of drugs: methamphetamine (Ice), cocaine, amphetamines (Adderall; Dexedrine)


  • Desired effects: Feeling “loved and connected”; sexual arousal
  • Negative effects: low feelings 2-5 days later, careless behaviour (especially sexual behaviour), dehydration
  • Examples of drugs: MDMA (Ecstasy), Mephedrone (Meow meow), Ethylone

Hallucinogens or Psychedelics

  • Desired effects: Euphoria, feeling relaxed, feeling spiritually connected
  • Negative effects: Upsetting hallucinations (seeing/experiencing things that are not factually present), high level of anxiety
  • Examples of drugs: LSD, Psilocybin (Magic Mushroom), Dimethyltryptamine (DMT)


  • Desired effects: Euphoria, feeling disconnected from self, can cause relaxation, has a calming effect
  • Negative effects: Panic attacks; abnormal sense of smell and taste; disturbing hallucinations
  • Examples of drugs: Nitrous Oxide (Laughing Gas), Ketamine, Methoxetamine (MXE)


  • Desired effects: Can relieve anxiety, has a calming effect
  • Negative effects: Can cause confusion, slurred speech, and lack of body coordination
  • Examples of drugs: Alcohol, benzodiazepines (Valium), GHB (often referred to as a “date rape” or “chemsex” drug)


  • Desired effects: Relieves pain, euphoria
  • Negative effects: Dependence and/or tolerance to prescription painkillers means the person needs more of the drug just to feel normal; high risk of fatal overdose
  • Examples of drugs: Buprenorphine, Methadone, Oxycodone, Codeine, Fentanyl, Morphine, Opioid Medications

Using the 7 types of Drugs in the Drugs Wheel, it is most useful to health care professionals [4].

Drug types can be distinguished by their controlled/non-controlled status.

Ketamine, a normally controlled substance, shows promise in a supported setting, of reducing alcohol relapse and desire to drink.

Proper classification of drugs according to their major effects also helps professionals quickly assess an emergency situation.

In times when overdose or drug complications and/or adverse interactions are suspected, prompt action is needed.

Harm strategies can also be formulated by consulting the Drugs Wheel. These harm reduction strategies include:

  • Needle distribution and/or recovery programs
  • Substitution therapies like Methadone Maintenance Treatment Program and Heroin Assisted Treatment
  • Take-home Naloxone (overdose kit) program
  • Outreach and education services to encourage safer drug use behaviour
  • Drink Driving prevention campaigns

The Drugs Wheel was created in 2012 in response to the popularity of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS), mistakenly labelled as “Legal Highs”.

NPS or “Legal High” drugs were often marketed as “not safe for human consumption”.

Synthetic cannabinoid addiction more commonly known as Fake Weed/ or Spice Addiction poses a significant threat to the public, especially the young adult population. [5]

What Are Some Examples Of Prescription Drugs?

Co-codamol (for pain), Citalopram Hydrobromide (anti-depressant), and Diazepam or Valium (anti-anxiety) are the three most common prescription drugs in the UK [6].

Prescription drugs are given after a health care practitioner follows the following steps: [7]

Definition of the person’s health care problem (also called diagnosis)

Specifying the therapeutic objective – these can be: [8]

  • Promoting health
  • Preventive care
  • Treatment of the condition
  • Rehabilitation (support for recovery from illness)
  • Palliative care
  • Choosing a treatment that is known as effective and safe

Starting the treatment

Writing a prescription (script) for medicines

Providing the individual with the health concern the answers to the following questions:  [7]

  • 1. What are the effects of the drug?
  • 2. What are the possible side effects?
  • 3. What are the specific instructions?
  • 4. Are there warnings about the drug?
  • 5. When is the next/ future consultation?
  • 6. Is everything clear about the instructions?

For clarity, health care authorities need to make sure that persons seeking their care understand the essential information about the drug.

Sometimes, health care personnel ask individuals under their care to repeat the crucial information because it is believed that by saying it out loud, the person has processed the information correctly.

After prescribing medicines, health care practitioners are instructed to:

  • Monitor the results of the drug used as a therapeutic measure
  • Determine when the person has improved and needs to stop using the drug
  • Discern whether there is a need to change dosage, drug type, or intake regimen

The follow-up session with the health care practitioner is designed to facilitate the evaluation of the health status of the individual.

Skipping the process or self-medicating is not recommended.

Likewise, if there are signs of psychological dependence on prescription medicines, the health care practitioner must be alerted.

During the follow-up session, the health care practitioner should be able to tell if:

  • Treatment is effective
  • Treatment is ineffective

In the US, there are government efforts to curb the unnecessary prescription of opioid painkillers, as these are considered highly addictive. [9]

In the UK, the use of opioid painkillers is tightly regulated. [10]

Although the country is not as seriously affected as the US in terms of the so-called opioid epidemic, prescriptions for opioid-based painkillers have increased significantly for the past few years. [10]

The top selling prescription medicines in the UK are: [6]

  • Codeine (Co-codamol) – for pain (headaches/migraines, muscular pain, toothache)
  • Citalopram Hydrobromide – for depression and panic disorder
  • Amitriptyline Hydrochloride – for pain and migraine

In addition, morphine and morphine-like painkillers, called opioid painkillers are also increasingly prescribed [11].

Examples of opioid pain killers are Tramadol, Hydrocodone and Oxycodone.

These painkillers are proven effective in treating the following conditions: [12].

  • Orthopaedic pain (for pain affecting the knee, hips, ankles, shoulders, hand and spine)
  • Dental conditions
  • Upper and lower back pain
  • Headaches and/or migraines
  • Cancer pain (especially breakthrough pain)
  • Post-operative pain

Although proven effective, using opioid painkillers can be addictive [11].

Individuals who develop a problem using opioid medications or prescription medications can detox safely in a rehab clinic such as Abbeycare to prevent risky withdrawal symptoms.

What Are Examples Of Drugs?

Examples of drugs used for recreational purposes, often illegally, are cocaine, heroin, cannabis (marijuana), diazepam (Valium), and Etizolam.

These drugs are the most common type of drugs seized by law authorities in Scotland. [13]

Behaviourists argue that the problematic use of illicit drugs is rooted in trauma, particularly adverse childhood experiences. [14]

For some individuals, the first step of recovery is by going through a detox programme in a reputable rehab clinic like Abbeycare Gloucester.

Therapists and addiction experts believe that using drugs became a valid coping mechanism to deal with stress.

Usually, the connection between stress relief/coping and drug use was made when the individual was most vulnerable.

It is highly possible that drug dependence/misuse is a symptom, and not the major problem the individual is experiencing.

By learning better ways to cope, becoming emotionally conversant, and building resilience, a person can break free from addiction.

Such new skills, self-insight, and understanding are best learned in psychotherapy.

Abbeycare Rehab Scotland incorporates psychotherapeutic lessons covering these topics in its residential drug and alcohol rehab programmes.

Drug and/or Alcohol Treatment: The Issue of Negative Experiences

Updated approaches in addiction treatment acknowledge the fact that drug misuse could be a symptom of: [14]

  • Traumatic experiences
  • Physical Abuse
  • Sexual Abuse
  • Emotional Abuse
  • Parental neglect
  • Abandonment
  • Social disapproval/ rejection/ bullying

These experiences are best explored in a structured environment with a counsellor or behavioural expert.

Issues surrounding these experiences tend to bring up strong emotions.

Under emotional stress, a person who is prone to misuse drugs can worsen, using the substance more as a way to cope.

The reason why exploring these deep-impact issues is done in a structured environment is to provide support.

Professional help can be crucial in gently nudging a person towards life-long recovery.

Additionally, effective therapeutic measures involve commitment, bolstered by family and community support.

When a treatment centre focuses on holistic care, there should be an emphasis on after-care provisions.

After-care means individuals in recovery must maintain their connections with supportive persons via attending Mutual Support Group meetings and/or continual communication.

Drug and/or Alcohol Treatment: Childhood and Family Matters

One of the major issues connected to adult drug misuse is the experience of negative childhood experiences.

When a person grows up with adverse childhood conditions, these conditions have a long-lasting impact.

If the child’s environment is one and/or alcohol)

  • Consistent discipline
  • Logic-based and empathy-based family rules


    1.   European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. (2019). United Kingdom Country Drug Report. Available at: http://www.emcdda.europa.eu/countries/drug-reports/2019/united-kingdom/drug-use_en
    2.   Scottish Drug Forum. (2019). The Drugs Wheel: A new model for substance awareness. Available at: http://www.thedrugswheel.com/downloads/TheDrugsWheelLeaflet2_0.pdf
    3.   National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Want to Know More? Some FAQs about Marijuana. Available at: https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/marijuana-facts-teens/want-to-know-more-some-faqs-about-marijuana
    4.   Alcohol and Drug Foundation. (2019). Drug Wheel. Available at: https://adf.org.au/insights/drug-wheel/
    5.   Barnes, T. (2018, 29 August). Spice should be upgraded to Class A drug, say police and crime commissioners. The Independent. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/spice-class-a-drug-classification-police-commissioners-legal-highs-effects-law-britain-a8513681.html
    6.   Mattews, S. (2018). A nation of pill poppers: Record 1.1 BILLION prescriptions written in 2017 as figures reveal the 20 most popular drugs but critics slam the NHS for spending millions on paracetamol. Daily Mail Online. Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-5505639/NHS-figures-reveal-20-drugs-dished-most.html
    7.  World Health Organization – WHO. (2010). Guide to Good Prescribing: A practical Manual. Available at: https://apps.who.int/medicinedocs/pdf/whozip23e/whozip23e.pdf
    8.  University Van Pretoria. Community Oriented Primary Care (COPC). Available at: https://www.up.ac.za/media/shared/62/COPC/copc_principles02.zp55893.pdf
    9.  Nat National Institute of Drug Abuse. (2016). Misuse of Prescription Drugs. Available at: https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/misuse-prescription-drugs/overview
    10.  Britton, R. (2019, September 10). The UK is dangerously close to having a full-blown opioid crisis. Independent. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/opioid-crisis-addiction-drugs-prescription-addaction-tramadol-depression-a9099071.html
    11.  Owens, B. (2015, June 11). Tackling prescription drug abuse. The Pharmaceutical Journal. https://www.pharmaceutical-journal.com/news-and-analysis/features/tackling-prescription-drug-abuse/20068685.article?firstPass=false
    12.  Janakiram, C. et al. (2019). Opioid Prescriptions for Acute and Chronic Pain Management Among Medicaid Beneficiaries. American Journal Of Preventive Medicine, 57(3), 365-373. DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2019.04.022. Available at: https://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(19)30216-8/pdf
    13.  Scottish Publci Health Observatory. (2016). Drug misuse: availability and prevalence. Available at: https://www.scotpho.org.uk/behaviour/drugs/data/availability-and-prevalence
    14.  Hart, C. L. (2016). Prioritize People and their Complexities Over Drugs. [Powerpoint Slides].http://www.sdf.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Carl-Hart-.pdf
    15.  National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2001). Preventing Drug Use among Children and Adolescents. Available at: https://d14rmgtrwzf5a.cloudfront.net/sites/default/files/redbook_0.pdf

    About the author

    Melany Heger

    Registered Psychologist and Freelance Writer, Jinjin Melany passionately writes about mental health issues, addiction, eating disorders and parenting since 2015. Read more about Melany on LinkedIn. Content reviewed by Laura Morris (Clinical Lead).