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The Most Commonly Abused Drugs

Over 53.2 million Americans aged 12 and over report using illicit drugs, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). That means around 19% of the United States population admits using illegal drugs, including prescription medications for non-medical purposes. Let’s look at the most commonly abused drugs, including alcohol and tobacco products that are illegal for youth but available to adults. 

Commonly Abused Drugs of All Time

Many drugs alter a person’s thinking and judgment, leading them to a path of dependence and addiction that can have fatal consequences. To start, let’s look at some commonly abused drugs that are often found on the streets and the rise of prescription drug abuse for non-medical purposes.


A schedule II drug that acts as a powerful stimulant made from the leaves of the coca plant. Cocaine addiction can lead to increased heart rate, nasal damage, paranoia, and erratic or violent behavior. Depending on the form of the drug, cocaine can be snorted, injected, and even smoked. In all cases, cocaine is a potent central nervous system stimulant that affects the brain’s dopamine processing. In 2018, about 16.8% of Americans acknowledged using cocaine in their lifetime. 


Close to 800,000 people in the US identify as heroin users. This highly addictive drug has made a comeback as a popular drug among young people. Experts believe the crackdown on prescription drugs has led people to look for cheaper alternatives, like heroin. Some of the lasting effects of heroin abuse include collapsed veins, liver or kidney disease, and pneumonia. 


Hallucinogens include substances like mushrooms, ayahuasca, LSD, PCP, peyote, ketamine, and others. Estimates say almost 5.6 million people in the US have used hallucinogens in their lifetime. Out of all hallucinogens out there, LSD, PCP, and Ecstasy (Molly) are among the most commonly abused.


Inhalants are breathable chemicals that produce mind-altering effects and are commonly abused by young people. They are often not illegal since you can find them in everyday household products like cleaning fluids or spray paints. Still, an estimated 2 million people use inhalants each month, with the largest percentage of users in the 12 to 17 age group.


With the legalization of marijuana in most states across the country, cannabis is a highly debated subject. Almost 43.5 million of reported drug users note having used marijuana recently. Other studies point out that the use of marijuana is now 40 percent higher than the national average. Most people don’t know that marijuana can be addictive and long-term use can lead to brain damage. 

Synthetic Cannabinoids

Although technically these are bi-products of marijuana, they’re a Schedule I drug that deserves its category. These human-made products are often much more potent than marijuana and more dangerous. Often marketed as “natural,” or a legal alternative to marijuana, they can cause paranoia and anxiety, not to mention, its long-term effects on our health remain unknown. 

Synthetic Cathiones (Bath Salts)

Bath salts are an emerging family of drugs that have chemicals related to cathinone. These stimulant drugs are highly addictive and dangerous because users can’t tell precisely what they’re ingesting. Health effects range from euphoria to depression and panic attacks. Still, almost 2 million people reported using bath salts in 2018. 


Perhaps the second largest problem in the United States is certain prescription medications for non-medical use. Psychotherapeutics include prescription-type pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives. About 16.9 million people misuse prescription drugs in the past month. These drugs can all have fatal health effects when misused, and the rising numbers of addicts remain a growing public health concern. 


Previously methamphetamine as part of the psychotherapeutics category. However, because it’s widely available on the streets, it received its class. Around 897,000 people are current users of methamphetamine. People often combine it with alcohol and other substances, resulting in anxiety, paranoia, and hallucinations. 


Another category that could be part of the psychotherapeutics group, but deserves its own are opioids. Approximately 3.5 million people in the country misused prescription opioids. Prescription painkillers have an origin similar to heroin and have a high potential for misuse and abuse. Those who turn to opioids for non-medical use are after the euphoria that they produce. However, these are highly addictive and dangerous substances that can lead to death overdose. In fact, 2018 data shows that almost 128 people in the United States die every day after overdosing on opioids. 

Tobacco and Alcohol

Although tobacco and alcohol are legal substances, they’re both addictive and are a significant portion of the most commonly abused drugs in the country. Both substances can lead to an increased risk of certain cancers, heart disease, and death. Almost 87.30% of the American population reports using alcohol, with nearly 24.5% reporting engaging in binge alcohol use frequently, and 18% struggled with alcohol abuse in their lifetime. As far as tobacco use, 21.5% of Americans use them, with cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products (e-cigarettes) being the most commonly abused ones. 

Our Substance Abuse Problem

Whether we’re talking about illicit drugs, prescription drugs, or legal substances, there’s no doubt that we have a substance abuse problem in our country. Every day hundreds of people start their substance abuse journeys, and not many find the help they need. Estimates say around 10 percent of those who need drug addiction treatment never get it. According to a study, these are the average number of initiates per day among individuals aged 12 or older:

  • Tobacco products: 2,706
  • Marijuana: 1,438
  • Cocaine: 672
  • Heroin: 205
  • Hallucinogens: 685
  • Inhalants: 160
  • Methamphetamines: 291
  • Opioids: 3,108
  • Tranquilizers: 1,535
  • Stimulants: 828
  • Sedatives: 391

When you combine these numbers, you get an average of 12,000 people initiating each day on one or more of the most commonly abused drugs. That’s close to 360,000 people on average each month. 

Getting Help

Although many people don’t seek treatment for their substance abuse problem, the reality is that treatment options are widely available. For most of these addictions, there are FDA-approved medications that can help ease the dependence and help people steer off these substances. Not to mention, there are evidence-based treatments like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational enhancement therapy (MET), 12-step facilitation therapy, maintenance programs, and much more. 

We know that addiction is a progressive and complex disease. But we also know that it’s treatable. No single treatment is right for everyone. Choosing a treatment plan that meets your unique needs is critical for recovery. Effective treatment attends multiple needs beyond their substance abuse problem, such as mental health issues, eating disorders, and any other co-occurring disease. 

While medications are an essential element of treatment, behavioral therapies –individual therapy, family, and group therapy — are paramount to an effective treatment. It’s not unlikely to reassess someone’s treatment plan as they make progress and incorporate different techniques such as alternative therapies, relapse prevention classes, and life skills development courses to better navigate their sobriety. 

At Lighthouse Recovery Institute, our addiction treatment plans offer a comprehensive approach to substance abuse. We believe in creating tailor-made programs that address your unique needs and set you on the right path to recovery. If you or someone you know is struggling with drug and alcohol abuse, please contact us today. 

Stop finding excuses to avoid getting the treatment you need to survive. We can help you find out if your insurance might cover your rehab program, or help you figure out payment options, as well as the right treatment path to choose to start your recovery. Together we can help you overcome this horrendous disease and help you enjoy a healthy, sober, and exciting life. 

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