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What are legal drugs and what types are there?

What are legal drugs and what types are there?

September 19, 2022

In the psyche of most Spanish-speaking people, the term drug is associated with an illegal substance: when we hear about drugs, the first names that come to our head are probably cocaine, heroin, ecstasy or LSD.

However, there are a large number of substances that fall into this type of classification and not all are illegal (although that does not mean they are harmless, their use or abuse can generate serious consequences). What are legal drugs and what types are there? In this article we are going to discuss it.

  • Related article: "Types of drugs: know their characteristics and effects"

Legal drug: basic concept

The concept of legal drug is easy to understand, but for this it is necessary first of all to remember what a drug is.


We call all that substance, whether of natural or synthetic origin, with the capacity to generate an alteration or modification in the nervous system . It is therefore all that substance that has a psychoactive effect. In this definition, there is no room for legal consideration of the substance, although in a colloquial manner we usually identify drugs with illegality.

Thus, they are called legal drugs those substances with psychoactive effects that are allowed, their use is not punishable by law despite knowing their possible effects. This legal status may refer to its use at recreational level or be designed for other uses, which do not include consumption to achieve alter the psyche, and for which it is considered something allowed.


That yes, as we indicated in the introduction that are legal do not mean that they do not pose danger, being the misuse and / or abuse of them very dangerous and harmful to health and can lead to serious diseases or even cause death.

  • Maybe you're interested: "15 consequences of drug use (in your mind and in your body)"

Types of legal drugs

There are many legal drugs that exist, and that can receive different uses by the population. Some use them as a recreational element, while in other cases consumers seek to benefit from relaxing or exciting effects of the substance in question or use them in order to forget or reduce some type of physical or emotional pain. Among the so-called legal drugs, some of the best known are the following.

1. Alcohol

Probably, the drug most used and accepted socially to the point of being part of a variety of cultures. Alcohol or ethanol is a substance of the depressant type , which decreases the activation of the nervous system and which is consumed by all kinds of people, generally starting in adolescence.


Initially it has a euphoric and relaxing effect, as well as in some people certain disinhibition, but later the general tone diminishes and symptoms such as blurred vision, hypotonia and muscular weakness appear or problems to focus attention or inhibit extreme emotional behaviors. Excessive and abusive consumption can lead to hypoglycemia, dizziness, vomiting, coma or even death .

It can also generate dependence with great ease (especially due to its social acceptance), as well as abstinence syndromes with deadly potential. It is common for alcoholics to develop cirrhosis, kidney and liver problems, and even cognitive and functional deterioration in complications such as those caused by Korsakoff's syndrome after Wernicke's encephalopathy.

2. Nicotine

Tobacco is another of the drugs most consumed worldwide and, although the legislation of many countries prohibits smoking in certain spaces, the very fact of smoking or marketing nicotine products (especially tobacco) is not prohibited. It is a substance that may seem relaxing for experienced smokers, but it's really a psychostimulant whose main mechanism of action is on acetylcholine.

If long-term smokers find it relaxing, it is because their long-term consumption ends up blocking said neurotransmitter. It generates a large number of problems, with lungs being particularly relevant (lung cancer and COPD are prominent) and cardiorespiratory.

We are facing a substance that it generates dependency (In fact, it is the main one responsible for the generation of tobacco dependence) and withdrawal syndrome, as people who have tried to quit will probably know.

3. The xanthine group: caffeine, theobromine, theophylline

Although few people consider them as drugs, the truth is that they are substances that generate an alteration in brain chemistry that has effects on behavior so that they can be considered as such. These are substances with a stimulating effect, generally generating an increase in brain activation.Of course, its effects are much lower than those of other substances, needing large quantities to be dangerous.

Caffeine is probably best known as such, with coffee consumption being the most frequent. Although it is not usually considered the existence of dependence as such, it is observed that for some people it is an addictive substance and to which the body generates tolerance, which may lead to a certain withdrawal syndrome. An intoxication is difficult to reach, but it is possible with massive consumption (from six cups of coffee it begins to be dangerous).

In addition to coffee you have to take into account that can be found in a lot of soft drinks that although perhaps to a lesser extent they also generate a high.

As for theobromine and theophylline, possibly few people know what we are referring to. However, these are components that are present in tea and chocolate and that generate an increase in cortical activation and energy levels .

4. Volatile substances

We are dealing with substances that are legal because their original use is not linked to the consumption or administration of the substance as such in the body. The name of volatiles is due to the fact that the route of administration is usually inhaled or aspirated. These are substances such as glue, gasoline, anesthetics or ketones , that some people use in order to notice psychoactive effects, generally of the depressant type.

They are substances with low addictive potential, but prone to abuse that can cause serious damage among others in the liver, spine, muscles and nervous system. It also facilitates the appearance of aggressive behavior.

5. Psychotropic drugs and other drugs

The psychotropic drugs, and in fact all kinds of drugs, is a substance that can be considered a legal drug (not in vain do drugs in English refer to both the concept of drug and drug) by generating an alteration in the patient's nervous system (in the case of other drugs not linked to psychiatry alter the chemistry of other parts of the body). At first The use of these drugs is medicinal, which is why they are legal . However, many become dependent and even in some cases are used well to try to enhance their own skills or recreationally.

Probably the most frequently used psychotropic drug in this sense are benzodiazepines, which are mainly used to treat anxiety. In their medical use, in principle, the doses used and the times used are monitored to a great extent, although many medical professionals prescribe them excessively and for longer than they should be employed in principle. Other anxiolytics have also been abused due to their high addictive potential, such as the not so frequent barbiturates (which caused many deaths due to overdoses, such as that of Marilyn Monroe).

In addition to this, substances such as amphetamines or derivatives thereof, such as modafinil or adderall, are used, although their function and indication are problems such as ADHD or narcolepsy are sometimes used recreationally or even by students because of its stimulating properties and the supposed empowerment of the ability to concentrate and stay active. Also in this case they can generate serious health problems (including liver and coronary problems) and be very addictive, being dangerous if they are used without medical control.

Among other drugs that are not used as psychotropic drugs but that do generate addiction and dependence and are considered legal drugs are drugs such as steroids, morphine or codeine, or anesthetics such as phencyclidine. Steroids are another substance that can be considered a legal drug; they are often abused in fields such as sports and this can have serious repercussions on health. As for morphine, it is an opiate derivative that is used to treat pain.

Codeine is a derivative of this, present in multiple syrups and medications. Both are opioids with depressant and relaxing effects and can generate addiction and withdrawal, as well as intoxications. Finally, phencyclidine is an anesthetic currently used for veterinary and psychodysleptic effects that can generate perceptual alterations, loss of sensitivity, aggressive behavior and even hallucinations.

All these drugs are legal in certain areas, some of which can be easily obtained (for example, anxiolytics) while others are only legal in very specific areas.

Differences between countries: the case of cannabis

So far we have talked about substances allowed in most of the globe, either recreationally or for other purposes. However, we must bear in mind that the law is not the same in all parts of the world. Which drugs are considered legal or not will depend on the legislation of each country. One of the cases in which we most see this variability is in cannabis, whose legal consideration varies greatly in different countries of the world.

The best known case is that of the Netherlands, which allows the purchase and consumption of cannabis in coffee shops. Also in Washington and Colorado, in the United States, or in Uruguay recreational use is permitted (although with restrictions). In other countries, including ours, own consumption is decriminalized as long as it is carried out in private places. Consumption in public, however, if prohibited and illegal . So is the crop, and obviously the same happens with its sale and distribution.

In addition, other substances have changed their legal status in certain countries. In the United States, for example, the sale of alcohol was illegal during the so-called Ley Seca. Alcohol is also forbidden in some Muslim countries, for religious reasons, although in other countries legislation does allow it.

False legal drugs: "legal highs"

Special mention deserve a type of substances for recreational use that while sold as legal in reality what they do is to take advantage of the legal vacuum generated by little knowledge about them or because they are so recent that has not yet given time to be banned .

It is about drugs that are called to be regulated, and in many cases forbidden, and take advantage of the slowness of the administrations in order to establish laws or regulations in this regard to pass themselves off as legal. Actually, they would be in a situation of negligence: the legislation does not yet contemplate them. This is due to a kind of escalation or competition: as they are prohibited and pursuing specific drugs, others are created that take advantage of legal gaps.

In addition, they take advantage of this plea to sell more: they claim to be legal, which makes the consumer believe that the danger is minimal . However, in many cases their psychoactive effects are not known and many of them have devastating effects on those who consume them. For example, the well-known cannibal drug or krokodil were at the time alleged, created as an attempt to replace the already persecuted heroine.

Bibliographic references:

  • Gahlinger, P.M. (2001). Illegal Drugs: A Complete Guide to Their History, Chemistry, Use and Abuse. Sagebrush Press (UT).
  • Fox, Thomas Peter; Oliver, Govind; Ellis, Sophie Marie (2013). "The Destructive Capacity of Drug Abuse: An Overview Exploring the Harmful Potential of Drug Abuse Both to the Individual and to Society". ISRN Addiction. 2013: pp. 1 - 6.
  • Teale P, Scarth J, Hudson S (2012). "Impact of the emergence of designer drugs upon sports doping testing". Bioanalysis. 4 (1): pp. 71-88.

Top 10 Most Dangerous Street Drugs (September 2022).


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