Most people divide substances into two categories: the hard drugs like heroin, cocaine, and crystal meth, and the soft drugs like alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and prescribed narcotics. Hard drugs are all illegal in the US, they are sold exclusively by underworld organizations, they are associated with the down and out, are socially unacceptable for most people, quickly lead to poor health, problems in the job, broken homes, and criminal activity as people will lie, cheat, and steal to get their next fix. Any dosage of a hard drug can get you high, whereas most soft drugs can be used without intoxication.
All this is true, but it is a mistake to assume that hard drugs are more addicting.
Both soft and hard drugs contain properties that constitute addiction: increased tolerance, withdrawal, and loss of control. Most people who use drugs, soft or hard, will not develop an addiction, but when a person does, their use generally arrives to the point of addiction after about the same number of uses, no matter what the drug.
It’s important to remember that people who use soft drugs use them much more frequently, in more settings, and in response to more triggers. For instance, the typical cigarette smoker, using a pack a day, will puff on a cigarette about 200 times a day. He will smoke when he wakes up and when he goes to bed, when he’s on breaks, and after every meal; in the bathroom, in the kitchen, and in the car. He will smoke to be alert and to calm down. He’ll smoke when he gets angry and after sex. Cigarette smoking becomes associated with every part of life.
Most of those 200 times a day a tobacco user smokes will be pleasurably reinforcing. He will associate that feeling with relief from a host of issues. Others will accept his use of cigarettes better than they would his use of heroin. Cigarettes will lead to poor health, but it takes years. His boss will give him smoke breaks, his wife will be unlikely to leave him for smoking, and he will not get thrown into jail for possessing a pack of cigs.
The typical heroin addict, in contrast, will shoot up no more than 4–5 times a day. He will do so only where he can get privacy, in a bathroom, alone in his apartment, or a shooting gallery where no one will judge. He does it for two reasons, to calm down and to avoid withdrawal. Kicking a full-time heroin addiction is hard, make no mistake about it, but it is not nearly as hard as it is to stop smoking cigarettes.
The same general principle applies when you compare any soft drug to and hard. Soft drugs are more addicting than hard drugs, they are much more difficult to quit.