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Hard and soft drugs are loose categories of psychoactive drugs. This distinction is used in both official and casual discourse. The term hard drug generally refers to illegal drugs that lead to profound and severe addiction, as opposed to soft drugs that are either only mildly psychologically addictive or non-addictive.
Cocaine (in powder form or in smokable form as crack), the amphetamines, and the opiates such as heroin and morphine, are most commonly referred to as hard drugs. According to some researchers, alcohol and nicotine, while freely available for sale in many countries, should be described as hard drugs because they are both addictive and associated with high mortality rates. In most popular discourse, however, hard drugs refers to illegal drugs associated with highly visible problematic users, namely heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine.
The term soft drug is most usually applied to cannabis (marijuana or hashish) because it is not associated with deaths, crime or violence amongst users and is without evidence of physical addiction. This distinction between soft drugs and hard drugs is important in the drug policy of the Netherlands, where cannabis production, Cannabis coffee shop retailing and use come under official tolerance (NL gedoogbeleid), subject to certain conditions.
Some consider certain hallucinogens to be hard drugs, but as most hallucinogens are non-addictive such drugs generally occupy a middle ground - neither hard nor soft. The possible exceptions are PCP, DXM and the phenethylamine-based empathogens such as MDMA, many of which are closely related to amphetamines; being relatively new to the drug culture more research is needed to ascertain the addictive potential and potential harms of these drugs.
The drug policy of the Netherlands classifies synthetic hallucinogens such as LSD (acid) and MDMA (ecstasy) as hard drugs, although they have very similar action to naturally occurring drugs such as mescaline, which is considered a soft drug in its natural form of peyote, or psilocybin in its natural form as psilocybe (magic mushrooms). Both are sold legally in the Netherlands in their unprocessed natural form.
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