What Are Psychoactive Drugs?

Alcohol and drugs are psychoactive substances because they directly alter the functioning of the central nervous system. A drug is “psychoactive” due to its ability to increase or decrease the speed of electrical impulses along the neutral pathways in the brain. For example, alcohol slows down this electrical activity while cocaine accelerates it. Psychiatric drugs as medications can treat disorders of the brain by stabilizing chemical imbalances.

The categories of psychoactive substances include:


Alcohol, opioids, and sedatives-hypnotics are depressants. While opioids and alcohol are sometimes listed in separate drug classifications, they are still referred to as depressants. Some depressants briefly stimulate the higher brain centers. This results in excitement and decreased inhibition where a person no longer feels restrained. This effect is followed by depression of the central nervous system. Depressants cause relaxation, sedation, a sense of euphoria, and reduced alertness, anxiety, emotional discomfort, or physical pain.


Drugs classified as stimulants include caffeine, nicotine, amphetamines, methamphetamines, cocaine, and crack cocaine. They stimulate the central nervous system, increase physical activity, and create a sense of alertness, wellbeing, and euphoria.


Drugs in the category of cannabinoids include marijuana, hashish, and hash oil. These substances can act as stimulants, depressants, or hallucinogens, and produce alerted perceptions and a sense of euphoria, relaxation, or wellbeing.

Hallucinogens or “Psychedelics”

Drugs classified as hallucinogens or “psychedelics” include LSD, PCP, peyote, mescaline, psilocybin, and designer drugs like ecstasy. They distort reality, alter perceptions, blur the boundaries between self and the environment, and create the illusion of special insights or increased empathy towards others.

Inhalants or “Deliriants”

Drugs classified as inhalants include solvents, gases, and nitrates. They alter perceptions, cause mental confusion, create a euphoric “rush,” and cause a person to feel like they’re floating.

Anabolic Steroids

The drugs classified as anabolic steroids are synthetic substances similar to male sex hormones. They are used to enhance athletic performance and make a person feel stronger, more confident, and powerful.

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Treatment, Not Punishment, Should Be the Priority

America is a nation obsessed with the consequences of alcohol and drug abuse. The federal government allots 92% of its substance abuse budget to responding to drug abuse and only 8% of its budget to actually treating drug dependence. It’s not only the federally-funded health care which neglects to treat the illness. Law enforcement, courts, and prisons for punishing drug use cost billions of dollars, but America comparatively spends pennies on preventing substance abuse which contributes to crime.

When a person who commits a crime has a drug addiction, it is not reasonable to simply incarcerate that person. If they are left untreated, they will likely return to crime and drugs, but when they receive treatment for addiction, they are dramatically less likely to re-offend. It is counterproductive to refuse to treat people who abuse alcohol and drugs when they are in prison. If recovery is going to be prevention-based, then actions need to be taken to prevent abuse, not just punish it.

To do this effectively, the investments that corporations undertake to produce profits for for their stockholders, that parents make to give their children the best education possible, that the medical industry dedicates to cancer and heart disease prevention are needed. This is not to say that people are not responsible for their actions when commit crimes under the influence of drugs and alcohols. Rather, treatment needs to be prioritized for the disease of addiction more than in the past.

For more information on treatment options, contact a treatment provider today.

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Cindy Hardy

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  • Dr. Cindy Hardy is a Licensed Psychotherapist with over 17 years of experience in the mental health and substance abuse field. She is a professional member of the National Association of Addiction Professionals (NAAP) and Licensed Professional Counselors Association of Georgia (LPCA). Dr. Hardy holds a Doctorate Degree in Behavioral Health, Masters in Psychology, and Master in Health & Human Services from Upper Iowa University and Grand Canyon University.

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