Not everyone who takes a drug, whether of a legal or illegal variety is fully aware of its properties or the science of its (neurochemical) effect on the brain. The user’s interest is generally limited to the subjective experience of its short term effects. Will it make them feel differently and in the way they hope it will? They are unlikely to be much concerned with how it might be classified.
Drugs categorised as either a stimulant or a depressant have one thing in common: they both act upon the central nervous system (CNS), including the brain. The basic difference between them is that stimulants speed up the workings of this system while depressants slow it down. Stimulants galvanise the CNS in a way that dramatically increases energy and therefore activity. The person experiences an amplified state of alert and may become extremely talkative and restless as a result. The colloquial name given to a drug often gives a clue. Amphetamines, for instance, became known as “speed” for good reason and earlier, in its prescribed form, by the name “pep pills”. Besides amphetamine and methamphetamine, cocaine and caffeine are also designated as stimulants.
As the CNS slows down under the influence of depressants, people feel less energetic, more relaxed, even sedated and drowsy to the point of stupor. In this group can be found alcohol, benzodiazepines and opioids.
People are often surprised to learn that alcohol is a depressant which may in part be due to them equating the meaning of the term to the words “depressing” or “depression”. They will ask how alcohol can be classed as a depressant when it clearly disinhibits drinkers in ways that appear to elevate mood, energise them and make them more expressive. This happens precisely because alcohol, as a depressant, impairs and slows down the brain’s self-regulating functions. Sceptical consumers overlook the fact that while these initial effects are what makes alcohol attractive to so many, it is only rewarding in the short term. In larger quantities and as a result of the effect of chronic use on the brain, it interferes with thought processes, perception, attention, judgement, memory, sleep and co-ordination. It will increase susceptibility to depression and anxiety.
Perhaps more surprising is to be asked whether heroin is a stimulant given its rather obvious narcotic effects, with people under its influence appearing not to have a care. The addicted heroin user only seems aroused by the need to obtain more of the drug to avoid unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.
There is some uncertainty about where, in relation to depressants and stimulants, to place nicotine, sugar, cannabis, MDMA and volatile substances as these intermittently appear to have both depressant and stimulant effects. There is seldom a tidy uniformity in the experiences of users. However, they all carry mental and physical risks, which for some include potential fatality.