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Most Commonly Used Addictive Drugs In The U.S.

Millions of people in the U.S. struggle with drug use each year and many will face addiction sooner or later as a result of this use. Some addictive drugs are legal, like alcohol, making them easy to obtain and use, and some are illicit, like heroin, but may still be easy to obtain and equally addicting. No matter the route someone takes to addiction, the outcome is the same: addiction takes over the person’s life, halting life progress, disrupting relationships, work and/or school performance and affecting daily life overall. Understanding which is the most commonly used addictive drugs in the U.S. can help prepare individuals and their loved ones for the type of treatment best suited for each type of addiction, identify addiction and dependence issues and seek a program that will address each person’s individual needs. Each year, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) measures rates of drug use throughout the nation to help equip treatment providers with this knowledge, so they may adjust their programs to help those in need. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted by SAMHSA, the most commonly used addictive drugs in the U.S. are:

While these are the drugs for which misuse is measured, other commonly used drugs exist in the U.S. as well. For example, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) also names bath salts and anabolic steroids as common drugs of use. [bottom-inline-cta]

Understanding Addictive Drugs

To understand both what makes a certain drug addictive, and why people use it, requires an understanding of how addiction forms and the difference between addiction and dependence. Due to the nature of drugs, their chemical makeup and how they affect the brain and body, different drugs will prompt different reactions for people who use them and will vary in the ability to cause addiction or dependence.

Addiction Vs. Dependence

Addiction is a psychological reliance on a substance or an act (such as gambling). Because addiction can result from repeated use of a substance or repeated participation in an activity, addiction is a disease of the mind. It is not to be confused with physical dependence, which affects the body and mind quite differently. Essentially, an addiction happens when a person does something repeatedly (such as using a drug) and experiences pleasure from it. This changes the way the brain feels about pleasure, rewiring it to be happy only when the pleasurable activity occurs (drug use). After a time, a person relies on this activity for happiness and the brain is actually changed to believe it cannot experience happiness without it. Physical dependence, also called chemical dependency, occurs when a person becomes addicted to a substance and the body becomes convinced it cannot function without the drug. When this happens, a person will experience uncomfortable, even painful, withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop using. In fact, withdrawal is often responsible for continued drug use, as people try to avoid going through this harrowing process. In truth, any drug could become addicting if a person uses it enough, forms a habit of use and comes to rely on it for happiness, peace of mind or other factors. For example, some people may begin abusing substances to self-medicate the symptoms of a mental health disorder or other chronic illness. Used in this way, people may have a hard time recognizing or admitting they have a substance use disorder. However, only a handful of drugs can cause physical dependence and include: alcohol, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and opioids. For this reason, these drugs are often viewed as the most addictive drugs, because a person with dependence also has an addiction. A person with an addiction is not necessarily dependent on a drug. Dependence is extremely hard to overcome alone, and severe addictions (such as ones that have lasted for months or years) may also be hard to overcome. Fortunately, many treatment options exist to help people best drug addiction and dependence issues.

What Factors Affect Drug Use?

Any person can struggle with drug use, as addiction affects people from every demographic. Age, socioeconomic factors, and racial differences do not exclude anyone from the impact of drug use, but research shows certain groups will be affected by drug use more than others. Risk factors which affect a person’s likelihood to use drugs include the availability of the substance, age, whether the person has a co-occurring mental health disorder and income level.


The degree of availability may greatly affect a person’s tendency to use the drug. Quite often, drug use begins as misuse of prescription drugs, such as opioids. Drug use in this manner is not always intentional, and once a person becomes addicted to a prescription, stopping use may be difficult, especially if the person readily has access to the drug. History shows that the more available and legal a substance, the more it may be used. Alcohol is the most widely used legal substance in the U.S., with 15.1 million adults ages 18 and older reporting an alcohol use disorder nationwide in 2015. Due to alcohol’s social acceptability and legal status, it is easy to obtain, ready at hand and often used for self-medication. Availability may also impact a person’s tendency to use drugs or alcohol according to their location. Certain cities and regions may be located near areas of heavy drug trafficking, putting more and more substances of use in the hands of residents nearby.


While no drug of use is exclusive to a certain age group, research shows certain age groups may be more at risk for abusing particular drugs of use due to factors associated with their age. For instance, older persons are more likely to have issues related to pain, obtain a prescription for an opioid painkiller and fall victim to use of the drugs. Conversely, young teens may have ready access to certain drugs available in their area. The NIDA’s annual survey on drug use shows that 8th-, 10th- and 12th-grade students persistently have troubles with use of marijuana and misuse of prescription drugs. Many teens obtain prescriptions from parents, friends or family members and divert them for nonmedical use.

Co-occurring Mental Health Disorders

Approximately 7.9 million U.S. residents struggled with both a substance use disorder and mental health disorder in 2014, a condition also referred to as a co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis. People with a mental health disorder may be at higher risk for developing a substance use disorder because they may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope or in an attempt to alleviate symptoms of their mental disorder. Further, having both disorders at the same time may make a person more likely to stay caught in a cycle of addiction. Having a substance use disorder may aggravate a mental disorder and vice versa, so it’s important that people struggling with these conditions seek proper co-occurring disorder treatment for both illnesses at the same time.

Income Level

The NIDA lists income level as an important risk factor for the development of substance use or addiction. Children who grow up in poverty may be more at risk for turning to drugs or alcohol to cope, deal with trauma or self-medicate. Helping children avoid substance use early on can help them escape developing addiction later on in life. [middle-callout]

Treatment For Drug Use In The U.S.

Treating a person who struggles with an addiction to or dependence on one of the most addictive drugs in the U.S. may be a delicate process, but it’s a worthy one. Treatment programs throughout the United States are available to aid recovering individuals take back their lives from addiction. Some treatment options include inpatient or residential programs, outpatient programs, and continuing care. At Vertava Health, we recommend that people addicted to the most addictive drugs enter inpatient treatment programs and follow with continuing care or an outpatient program. Inpatient addiction treatment programs allow individuals to completely and successfully stop the use of a drug, detoxify the body if necessary and learn the life skills and stress management techniques to continue living a substance-free life.