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What are the Main Drugs of Abuse?

The main drugs of abuse are those which are most commonly used by individuals attempting to harness their effects by taking them without the prescription of a doctor or against the law. These substances are almost all addictive in nature and can potentially lead to serious health concerns. While many other substances can be used illicitly and cause these same effects, the main drugs of abuse are listed below.


According to the NIDA, marijuana is by far one of the most highly abused drugs based on a survey on past-year use by 12th graders. At 35.1 percent of those surveyed admitting to past-year use of marijuana, which is 27 percent higher than the next most abused drug on the survey, marijuana use is common in almost every area. As stated by the NLM, “Marijuana can cause problems with memory, learning, and behavior.” 


Heroin drug of abuse

Heroin is a frequently abused drug in the US.

Heroin, while much more dangerous than marijuana, is still widely abused throughout the nation. According to the NIH, “Heroin causes a rush of good feelings just after it’s taken,” but it also causes respiratory depression and, over time, abscesses, collapsed veins, a higher chance of contracting HIV or hepatitis, and addiction


Cocaine, as well as its smokeable form crack, is another commonly abused substance which causes an intense addiction syndrome when taken consistently for a prolonged amount of time. In addition, it also causes withdrawal symptoms that can last for months after the individual stops abusing it. 

Prescription Opioids

Also called painkillers or narcotics, prescription opioids include medications like OxyContin, Vicodin, Dilaudid, and Duramorph. These substances cause pain relief and euphoric effects similar to that of heroin when taken in high doses. SAMHSA “estimates that the abuse of opioid analgesics results in more than $72 billion in medical costs alone each year.” 


Methamphetamine, crank, or crystal meth is an extremely addictive drug that is abused by individuals looking for an intense stimulant effect. The NIH states, “Meth at first causes a rush of good feelings, but then users feel edgy, overly excited, angry, or afraid.” The drug also causes psychotic behavior and certain other negative changes to the brain which often take over a year to heal properly. 


Alcohol is still one of the number one drugs of abuse, as well as “humanity’s oldest, most widespread, and most persistent drug problem,” according to Harvard Medical School. When used moderately, alcohol is not usually dangerous, but many individuals do choose to abuse it. This can lead to many issues, among them harmful behavior, nausea and vomiting, blackouts, overdose, and death. 

Prescription Stimulants 

Drugs like Adderall, Concerta, and Ritalin are often abused because the individuals who take them believe they will be able to perform better in school. These medications “increase alertness, attention, energy, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate” (NIDA). However, when they are taken in high doses, they can also lead to the possibility of stroke and heart attack. 

Many other drugs of abuse exist, but those listed above are some of the most common. Though certain ones are used to treat specific conditions, they can all be taken in ways that are physically and psychologically harmful for users.