Substance abuse and addiction have become a national crisis in the United States. As of the latest data, close to 60 percent of Americans are current users of alcohol, tobacco, or illicit drugs – all of which are addictive. Almost 15 percent – or 40.3 million Americans – were battling a substance use disorder (commonly known as an addiction) in 2020. Between September 2020 and 2021, more than 104,000 Americans died due to a drug overdose.
It is easy to believe that substance use is normal, because it is all around us. Millions of people use drugs and alcohol regularly. Not to mention, most start drinking and using drugs before they graduate high school. When substance use is seen as common or normal, many wrongly believe that it’s also safe. The truth is, substance use can spiral into major problems, including dependence, addiction, and overdose.
So, which substances are the “problematic” ones? What are the different types of addictive drugs you should avoid, and which are “okay” to use?
Which Drugs are Addictive?
Most drugs have the potential to be addictive. This is because they affect a user’s brain chemistry and alter its functioning.
For example, many drugs trigger the brain’s “reward circuit,” causing a surge in dopamine and, in turn, euphoric effects. This motivates a person to continue using the drug over and over again, to reinforce feelings of pleasure. Over time, however, the brain will adapt to the drug, reduce its chemical response to it, and require even more of the drug to feel pleasurable effects. This begins the addiction cycle.
However, it’s not possible to tell which drugs will be addictive to who, or which person will become addicted to drugs. This is highly individualized. No one factor can predict if a person will become addicted to the drugs they use, as there are many different risk factors for addiction. For example, a person’s genetics, environment, mental health, and period of brain development will also play a significant risk in whether they are at risk for addiction. Learn about the risk factors for addiction here.
At the end of the day, though, drugs are chemical substances that change a person’s physiology or psychology – therefore, they have the potential to be addictive. Of course, some drugs are far more addictive than others. However, it’s important to note that even legal drugs, such as prescriptions and over-the-counter medications, can be addictive when misused/used in a way other than prescribed.
Learn about the most addictive prescription drugs here.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) offers drug scheduling to identify which drugs have the highest abuse rate, and therefore the greatest potential to cause dependence and addiction. The scheduling is as follows:
- Schedule I drugs have a high potential for abuse and the potential to create severe psychological and/or physical dependence. These drugs have no accepted medical use and include heroin, marijuana, and ecstasy, as some examples.
- Schedule II drugs also have a high potential for abuse, and can potentially lead to severe psychological or physical dependence. These drugs are considered dangerous and include some prescription drugs, when used in a way other than advised. Examples include Adderall, OxyContin, cocaine, and methamphetamine.
- Schedule III drugs are defined as “drugs with a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence.” However, the potential for abuse is higher than Schedule IV drugs. Schedule III drugs include ketamine, anabolic steroids, and Tylenol with codeine.
- Schedule IV drugs have a low potential for abuse and dependence, but still come with risks when misused. These drugs include Xanax, Ativan, Ambien, and Darvon, to name a few.
- Schedule V drugs have the lowest potential for abuse and dependence. This scheduling category consists of substances containing limited quantities of certain narcotics, such as cough medications with less than 200 milligrams of codeine (Robitussin AC). Schedule V drugs also include Lyrica, Motofen, and Lomotil.
You can learn more about the DEA’s drug scheduling here.
7 Types of Addictive Drugs
Stimulants are drugs that increase attention, energy, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate in users. They intensify chemicals in the brain such as dopamine, and therefore have a high potential for addiction. Stimulants can be prescription medications as well as illicit drugs. As medications, stimulants are prescribed to treat disorders like ADHD, or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. As illicit drugs, stimulants are often used to stay awake and increase energy, especially in social situations. However, on top of addiction risks, stimulants have the potential to cause dangerous side effects like paranoia, seizures, cardiovascular failure, and psychosis.
Prescription stimulant brands that have high potential for abuse include:
Illicit stimulant drugs that also have high potential for addiction are:
- Ecstasy (a stimulant/hallucinogenic drug)
According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), opioids are a category of natural, synthetic, or semi-synthetic drugs that interact with the opioid receptors on nerve cells in a user’s body and brain. They reduce the intensity of pain signals and, therefore, feelings of pain. Opioids, like stimulants, may fall into a prescription or illicit drug category. Prescription opioids are commonly known as painkillers, prescribed to reduce pain (such as for injury). Illicit opioids also produce numbing effects, but are not legally prescribed, like heroin. As stated by the CDC, “Prescription opioids are generally safe when taken for a short time and as directed by a doctor, but because they produce euphoria in addition to pain relief, they can be misused and have addiction potential.”
Prescription opioids that are known as addictive drugs include:
- Oxycodone (common brand name: OxyContin)
Natural opioids that fall under the illicit drug category include:
- Illegally made fentanyl
- Speed (heroin and methamphetamine combination)
Learn about opioid addiction here.
Benzodiazepines, commonly called “benzos,” are a category of pharmaceutical drugs that are often prescribed to treat anxiety disorders and panic attacks. While these drugs are safe when taken as advised by a medical professional, the misuse of benzodiazepines can lead to dependence and addiction. When a person takes a high dosage of benzos over an extended period of time, they can become dependent on them to function and feel good. Upon stopping use, those dependent on Benzos can experience dangerous withdrawal symptoms like seizures. Therefore, professional detox and treatment is always recommended for those battling a benzo addiction.
Common benzodiazepines include:
- Ativan, a brand name for the drug Lorazepam
- Valium, the brand name for Diazepam
Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, which means that drinking alcohol reduces a person’s brain activity and slows down bodily functions. Immediate effects of alcohol are well-known, such as slurred speech, loss of coordination, and poor decision-making. However, many people do not realize that alcohol is also highly addictive. This is because, over time, the brain adapts to the neurological effects of alcohol and builds a tolerance. Alcohol consumers will drink more and more to feel the numbing and/or pleasurable effects of alcohol, and this eventually leads to addiction.
Alcohol is addictive in all forms, including:
After alcohol and tobacco, marijuana is the most widely used addictive substance in the United States. It is particularly popular among young people, but also increasing in older populations, as well. Because marijuana is a natural plant, many do not see the harm in smoking or consuming it. However, it can be highly addictive. According to national sources, an estimated 1 in 10 people who use marijuana will become addicted. And when they start before the age of 18, the rate of addiction rises to 1 in 6 users. On top of addiction potential, marijuana can also cause reduced brain function in young people.
- Other Illicit Drugs
Outside of the aforementioned illicit drugs like heroin, cocaine, and ecstasy, there are other types of illicit substances that pose the risk for addiction. These types of addictive drugs might include:
- Ketamine, an anesthetic originally intended for animals in surgery
- Synthetic cannabinoids, such as Spice and K2
- Inhalants, such as gasoline and paint thinner
- Hallucinogens, such as LSD, acid, mushrooms, and PCP
- Synthetic cathinones, such as bath sales or Flakka
- Over-the-Counter Drugs
As suggested in the DEA drug scheduling listed above, even over-the-counter (OTC) drugs can pose a risk for addiction with abuse/misuse. Specifically, OTC drugs that have increased dosages of addictive substances, such as codeine and dextromethorphan, have higher potential for abuse. Types of addictive, over-the-counter medications include but are not limited to:
- Cough medications containing dextromethorphan and/or codeine
- Allergy and cold medications containing pseudoephedrine
- Medications containing loperamide
Over-the-counter medications can become addictive when a user:
- Takes the medicine in a way or dose other than directed on the package
- Takes the medication for the effect it causes (i.e. to get high)
- Mixes multiple OTC medicines together to create new products and responses
Please note that this list is not exhaustive, and other types of addictive drugs can include anabolic steroids, tobacco, nicotine and vaping, salvia, peyote, Molly, Kratom, and more.
Treating Substance Addiction
If you or someone you love is exhibiting signs of addiction, or you are concerned his or her drug use is getting out of hand, do not hesitate to intervene. Early intervention is the best way to help someone on the pathway to recovery and to avoid the longer-term effects of substance abuse.
If you would like to speak with a drug addiction treatment specialist about your concerns, please do not hesitate to contact Turnbridge. Turnbridge is a mental health and addiction treatment center for adolescents and young adults. Call 877-581-1793 to speak with an expert today.