Psychoactive Drugs

What Are Psychoactive Drugs?

A psychoactive drug, psychopharmaceutical, or psychotropic is a chemical substance that changes brain function and results in alterations in perception, mood, consciousness, cognition, or behavior.[1] These substances may be used medically; recreationally; to purposefully improve performance or alter one’s consciousness; as entheogens; for ritual, spiritual, or shamanic purposes; or for research. Some categories of psychoactive drugs, which have therapeutic value, are prescribed by physicians and other healthcare practitioners. Examples include anesthetics, analgesics, anticonvulsant and antiparkinsonian drugs as well as medications used to treat neuropsychiatric disorders, such as antidepressants, anxiolytics, antipsychotics, and stimulant medications. Some psychoactive substances may be used in the detoxification and rehabilitation programs for persons dependent on or addicted to other psychoactive drugs.

How Do Psychoactive Drugs Work?

Psychoactive substances often bring about subjective (although these may be objectively observed) changes in consciousness and mood that the user may find rewarding and pleasant (e.g., euphoria or a sense of relaxation) or advantageous (e.g. increased alertness) and are thus reinforcing. Substances which are both rewarding and positively reinforcing have the potential to induce a state of addiction – compulsive drug use despite negative consequences. In addition, sustained use of some substances may produce physical or psychological dependence or both, associated with somatic or psychological-emotional withdrawal states respectively. Drug rehabilitation attempts to reduce addiction, through a combination of psychotherapy, support groups, and other psychoactive substances. Conversely, certain psychoactive drugs may be so unpleasant that the person will never use the substance again. This is especially true of certain deliriants (e.g. Jimson weed), powerful dissociatives (e.g. Salvia divinorum), and classic psychedelics (e.g. LSD, psilocybin), in the form of a “bad trip”.

Examples of Psychoactive Drugs

  1. cocaine
  2. crack cocaine
  3. methylphenidate (Ritalin)
  4. ephedrine
  5. MDMA (ecstasy)
  6. mescaline (cactus)
  7. LSD blotter
  8. psilocybin mushroom (Psilocybe cubensis)
  9. Salvia divinorum
  10. diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
  11. Amanita muscaria mushroom
  12. Tylenol 3 (contains codeine)
  13. codeine with muscle relaxant
  14. pipe tobacco
  15. bupropion (Zyban)
  16. cannabis
  17. hashish

Categories of Psychoactive Drugs

Psychoactive drugs include four groups of drugs:

  • Depressants: like alcohol and sleeping pills;
  • Stimulants: like nicotine and ecstasy;
  • Opioids: like heroin and pain medications; and
  • Hallucinogens: like LSD.


Depressants are drugs that slow down the activity of the central nervous system. Depressants are useful in treating many medical conditions, including insomnia, anxiety, and seizures. There are several different types of depressants, including barbiturates, benzodiazepines, alcohol, opioids, cannabis, and Rohypnol. Read more about depressants.


Stimulants (also often referred to as psychostimulants or colloquially as uppers) is an overarching term that covers many drugs including those that increase activity of the central nervous system and the body, drugs that are pleasurable and invigorating, or drugs that have sympathomimetic effects. Read more about stimulants.


Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone (OxyContin®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), codeine, morphine, and many others. Read more about opioids.


A hallucinogen is a psychoactive agent which can cause hallucinations, perceptual anomalies, and other substantial subjective changes in thoughts, emotion, and consciousness. The common types of hallucinogens are psychedelics, dissociatives and deliriants. Read more about hallucinogens.

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