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What Are Psychoactive Drugs?

what are psychoactive drugs


Psychoactive drugs, also known as psychotropic drugs, are chemical substances that alter a person’s mental state by temporarily changing the way their brain and nervous system function. Individuals who ingest psychoactive substances experience changes in their consciousness, moods, and perceptions. 

While psychoactive substances exist within a wide range of medications, they are also in illegal and recreational drugs, alcohol, and certain plants. Whether a person uses these substances under a doctor’s supervision or for recreational purposes, there is always a risk that they will develop a dependence on psychoactive drugs and become addicted.

However, every psychoactive drug has different risks and effects associated with its use. Legal and illegal drugs come with varying risks and potential harm. For instance, although caffeine is considered a psychoactive drug, it is considered safe and about 80% of American adults consume caffeine daily. This differs greatly from opioids, which have an extremely high potential for abuse, even when they are used as directed. Read on to learn more about the many different types of psychoactive drugs and their effects.

The Most Common Psychoactive Drugs

There are several different ways to classify psychoactive drugs. Depending on the context, people group psychoactive drugs by their potential for addiction, chemical structure, or guidelines enforced by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. However, psychoactive drugs are most commonly grouped based on how they affect an individual when they are under the influence of a particular substance. The following classifications allow people to understand psychoactive drugs easily.


What differentiates stimulants from other psychoactive drugs is their ability to increase specific actions with the mind and body. When an individual ingests stimulants, they experience an increase in energy, focus, and alertness, along with an improvement in mood. 

Some stimulants are available without a prescription, such as nicotine and caffeine. Stimulants like methylphenidate and amphetamines are available through a prescription only to remedy conditions including narcolepsy and ADHD. However, stimulants such as methamphetamine, cocaine, and crack are illegal in the U.S.


Unlike stimulants, depressants slow down the body and mind. When an individual ingests stimulants, they experience a decrease in tension, muscle relaxation, and anxiety relief. People take depressants to feel relaxed, but healthcare providers may prescribe depressant medication to aid in sleep and alleviate anxiety.

However, when people use depressants excessively, their breathing becomes shallow, their pulse weakens, and coma or death may occur. The most commonly used depressant medications include benzodiazepines, sedative-hypnotics, and barbiturates. However, alcohol is also a depressant.


Psychoactive opioids are synthetically engineered, but some of these drugs are naturally derived from poppy plants. When a person takes a psychoactive opioid, they experience drowsiness, pain relief, euphoria, and a reduced respiratory rate.

Healthcare providers prescribe opioids known as prescription painkillers, such as morphine, codeine, and oxycodone. Patients typically take these medications to treat severe chronic pain or manage pain following an invasive procedure, but these medications have a high potential for abuse. If an individual develops an addiction, they may seek illegal opioids such as heroin or fentanyl. 


Although there are emerging studies regarding the medical use of certain hallucinogens to treat mental illnesses, including PTSD, depression, and anxiety, it is not legal in the U.S. for healthcare providers to distribute hallucinogens. Some scientists argue that small doses of hallucinogens can improve a subject’s mood, creativity, and intelligence. However, these studies are not conclusive.

There are several different hallucinogens, which include psilocybin, LSD, ketamine, phencyclidine, and mescaline. Hallucinogenic drugs can incite erratic behavior, paranoia, and hallucinations. They also may cause users to experience challenges in focusing, depression, and memory loss.


The term “marijuana” refers to products derived from the cannabis sativa plant that contain substantial amounts of THC. Recently, there has been much debate about whether or not marijuana should be legal nationwide, but marijuana use is legal for recreational and medical purposes in specific states. 

Regardless of whether or not marijuana is legal, using this substance comes with psychoactive effects. In legal states, doctors may prescribe marijuana to lessen the symptoms of specific health issues. Medical marijuana may alleviate chronic pain, reduce seizures, improve a person’s mood, and reduce nausea. However, excessive marijuana use may impair concentration and coordination. It can also deteriorate a user’s ability to memorize information.

Designer Drugs

Designer drugs are synthetically created chemicals that a user may ingest to mimic the effect of other psychoactive substances. Since these substances are unregulated and illegal, their chemical composition remains unknown. Individuals who create designer drugs are constantly changing their formulas to produce an effect similar to other substances, such as hallucinogens and stimulants. Since the origins of designer drugs are unknown, it’s virtually impossible to predict the impact of consuming designer drugs. Substances in this category include mephedrone, Spice, MXE, W18, and bath salts.

Identifying Psychoactive Drug Abuse

Legal psychoactive drugs such as prescription medications, alcohol, and caffeine are relatively safe when individuals consume them responsibly, but there is always a risk that users will become physically or psychologically dependent on these substances. When users of legal psychoactive drugs develop an addiction, the consequences can be dire.

For instance, someone who is not addicted to alcohol may choose to drink and drive, which puts themselves and others in an unsafe situation. In contrast, other alcohol users may drink excessively and grow dependent on its effects.

The use of illegal psychoactive drugs comes with a higher risk of addiction because these substances do not undergo a professional manufacturing process. As a result, users cannot confirm what ingredients illegal psychoactive substances contain. Given that users cannot be sure of the drug’s content, there is an increased risk of overdose.

Psychoactive drug use can be challenging to identify, but Countrywide Testing is an online retailer of many health-related diagnostic test devices, including drug tests. If you’re concerned that a loved one may be abusing psychoactive, let Countrywide Testing offer you peace of mind with our FDA-approved at-home drug testing kits.

Our drug kits are all analyzed with laboratory services from Phamatech, Inc, a SAMHSA, ISO, CLIA, and CAP licensed laboratory, to provide you with fast and reliable results that you can trust.

When you need answers, Countrywide is there. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help!