Module 6: how drugs work: learner's workbook

3.3 The legality of drugs

Page last updated: 2004

Drugs can also be classified in terms of their legal status. There are a variety of reasons why some recreational drugs are legal while others are illegal. The legal status of drugs is often due to historical and political factors rather than their harmful nature. For example, penalties are imposed for the use of some drugs, such as heroin, which only a small proportion of the population use, while others of apparently equal or greater danger are widely used, accepted and promoted, such as alcohol.

Formal sanctions such as laws that prohibit the use of certain substances can deter people from using those drugs. However, they do not necessarily stop use altogether. Prescriptions are another way of influencing the use and availability of drugs.

Task - writing exercise

Write the names of at least two or more psycho-active drugs in each category below.
  • Legally available to adults e.g. Over the counter painkillers
  • Legal with prescription e.g. Ritalin
  • Illegal to use e.g. Cocaine


  • The most useful system of classifying drugs is by their effect on the central nervous system
    • Stimulants speed up the CNS
    • Depressants slow down the CNS
    • Hallucinogens distort the message carried in the CNS
    • Other - those drugs that do not easily fit into the other groups.
  • Some drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy can fit into more than one category.

Distance learners

(A good point for student to contact facilitator.)

Distance learners should take time now to reflect on their learning, check in with their facilitator and determine their progress.