Drug Abuse Facts In the US

Drug Abuse Facts In the US



Drug abuse has been major problem in the United States. There is always a high risk for developing an addiction, and is the most significant issue concerning drug abuse. The abuse of drugs and alcohol can severely impact a person’s physical and mental health as well as overall well-being.

Drug addiction, which is also known as substance use disorder, is a disease that affects a person’s brain and behavior, and leads to inability to control the use of legal or illegal substances, alcohol or medications despite its negative consequences. Drugs are used inappropriately (including alcohol, prescription medication or illegal drugs) to get pleasure, to outperform in certain situations, to change one’s perception of reality, etc.

Drug addiction usually starts as an experimentation of a recreational drug or alcohol in social settings and transitions into a more frequent use. Some people tend to abuse prescription medications by receiving them from friends or relatives who have been prescribed the medication.

The risk of addiction and how soon an individual becomes addicted varies according to the type and usage of drug. Some drugs, such as opioid used as painkillers, have a high tendency to cause addiction quickly than others.

As time passes, one needs higher doses of drug to get elated. As the substance use increases, one may find it difficult to go without the drug. Any attempts towards stopping the drug may cause intense cravings and make a person feel physically and mentally ill (withdrawal symptoms).

Abuse vs Addiction

Drug Abuse:  A person uses legal or illegal substances beyond the limit is drug abuse. A person could be taking more than the regular prescribed dose of pills or use other member’s prescription drug. A person may abuse drugs to feel good, ease stress, or avoid reality, but by and large can stop using the drug altogether and can change unhealthy habits.

Drug Addiction:  This occurs when a person cannot stop using drugs and affects physically and psychologically. When in addiction, a person cannot control the urge to use a substance or partake in an activity, and becomes dependent on the drugs to cope with the daily life.

Effects on the Brain

  • A person’s brain gets wired urging a desire to repeat experiences that make him or her feel elated, so motivated to do it again and again.
  • The addictive drugs target the brain’s reward system and flood the brain with a chemical called dopamine, which triggers a feeling of intense pleasure. So a person continues to take the drug to chase that high.
  • Over time, a person’s brain gets used to the extra dopamine, wanting to take more amounts of drug to get the same good feeling and other things the person enjoyed with family and friends may give less pleasure.
  • When drugs are used for a long time, it affects other brain chemical systems and circuits as well. It can interfere with one’s judgment, decision making, memory and ability to learn.

Factors that may increase the risk of addiction

  • Availability.  Accessibility to alcohol and drugs may greatly affect a person’s tendency to abuse. Misuse of prescription drugs like opioids can lead to drug abuse.  Abstaining from alcohol or drugs may be difficult if addicted since it is readily accessible.
  • Biological factors.  Factors like genes, stage of development, gender or ethnicity may also affect a person’s risk of addiction.  There is also a greater risk of addiction if parents or siblings have issues with alcohol and drugs.  Men and women are equally likely to get addicted.
  • Age.  A study shows certain age groups may be more prone to abusing particular drugs of abuse due to factors associated with their age. For instance, older people are more likely to have pain related issues and obtain prescription medications. They may fall victim to drug abuse.
  • Mental disorders.  Teens and people with psychological issues are at higher risk of drug use and addiction than others.  One may turn towards drugs as a way to feel better.
  • Peer Pressure and School.  During the teenage years, friends and peers can have a strong influence. Teenagers who use drugs can persuade even those who don’t to try drugs for the first time. Poor performance at school or having poor social skills can put a child at further risk for using or becoming addicted to drugs. Many teens tend to obtain prescriptions from parents, friends or family members and divert them for nonmedical use.
  • Early drug use.  Drug use in young kids can cause damage to the brains.  Kids taking drugs at an early age may be more inclined to get addicted as they grow older.  Kids who have trouble paying attention, worry constantly, feeling depressed may have a higher chance of addiction.
  • Troubled relationships.  Children growing up with family troubles, not close to their parents or siblings may also raise the chances of addiction.
  • Income Level.  Survey shows that income level is also a significant risk factor for the development of substance abuse or addiction. Children growing up in poverty may also turn towards drugs or alcohol to cope or deal with trauma or self-medicate.

Signs and Symptoms of Drug Abuse

  • Spending more time with new friends or friends who drink or get high
  • Isolating from family and friends
  • Personality changes
  • Paying less attention or neglecting basic hygiene
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Frequently asking or borrowing money, or never having money
  • Extremely cautious about their possessions, including their bag and room
  • Going late to work/school or not showing up at all
  • Neglecting or losing interest in activities
  • Not showing interest in finding a job if jobless
  • Lying about using drugs or drinking
  • Sneaking away to get euphoric or drunk
  • Issues with relationships or employment
  • Increased risk-taking

Withdrawal Symptoms

Stopping the use the substance or engage in the behavior often leads to withdrawal symptoms, which include:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Tremors and shaking
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite

Withdrawal symptoms when ceasing alcohol or benzodiazepines suddenly or without medical supervision can be fatal.


Addiction is a chronic condition that affects psychologically and physically. Treatments can be complicated and time consuming, but it is effective. The treatment depends on the substance and the presentation of the addiction that varies person to person, and may require different management.

There are various ways to manage and resolve addiction, which include:

  • Behavioral therapy and counseling
  • Medication and drug-based treatment
  • Medical devices to treat withdrawal
  • Treating psychological factors such as depression
  • Continued care to reduce the risk of relapse

Addiction treatment is highly personalized and often involves counseling, medication, family and community support.

Drug Abuse Facts

Drug abuse and addiction not only affects individuals, but also can have detrimental consequences that affect their health, family, employment, communities, society and health care systems as a whole.

  • Drug abuse and addiction is a condition described by a self-destructive pattern of using a substance or alcohol that leads to significant problems and distress, which may include tolerance to or withdrawal from the substance.
  • Abusing alcohol or substances causes changes in behavior and the manner the brain works, especially in the areas governing judgment and reward. Continued substances abuse can be a warning sign that a person is beginning to lose control over their drug use.
  • Drug use disorder is quite common in the United States, affecting more than 8% of people at some point in their lives.
  • Most people voluntarily start using a drug or first engage in an activity. In most cases, addiction takes over and reduces self-control.
  • People tend to abuse any substance that results in a euphoric or high feeling.
  • Some of the most commonly abused substances like household cleaners are used as inhalants.
  • Substance use disorder involving any drug has devastating side effects, although specific physical and psychological effects of drug use disorder may vary based on the particular substance involved.
  • A number of psychological, biological and social risk factors can predispose a person to develop a drug use disorder, although chemical use disorder have no single cause.
  • Substance misuse is different from addiction. Substance misuse does not always result in addiction, while addiction is long-term inability to moderate or stop intake or engagement in harmful behavior.
  • Drug addiction can be life-threatening if left untreated.
  • Substances abused have an effect on the executive functioning areas of the brain. Drugs particularly affect the brain's ability to inhibit actions that a person would otherwise delay or prevent.
  • There is no particular test to definitively diagnose a person’s substance use disorder.  Medical professionals assess these disorders by collecting comprehensive medical, family and mental health information, as well as perform physical examination and lab tests to assess the person’s medical state.
  • Treatment options for substance abuse disorders remain predominately underutilized by most people who suffer from these conditions.
  • Primarily, the goals of recovery are abstinence, relapse prevention and rehabilitation.
  • During the initial stage of abstinence, a person suffering from chemical dependency may need detoxification treatment to help avoid or lessen the effects of withdrawal.
  • Much more challenging and time-consuming than recovery from the physical aspects of addiction is psychological addiction.
  • Dual diagnosis treatment is more effective when treatment of the sufferer's mental illness occurs in tandem with the treatment of chemical dependency.
  • Remaining drug free and relapse characterize recovery from a substance use disorder.
  • Alcohol and illicit drugs abuse affects society through costs incurred secondary to reduced productivity at work, health care expenses, crime, etc.
  • Substance abuse and addiction also affects broken families, domestic violence, physical abuse, child abuse, destroyed careers, death due to negligence or accident.
  • Substance abuse and addiction changes the brain chemistry. The longer the use, the more the damage is done. It is harder to go back to “normal” during treatment or rehabilitation.
  • Substance use disorders can be effectively treated with comprehensive rehabilitation program that is tailored to meet one’s specific needs.
  • The main barrier in the treatment of people with substance dependence and associated problems is the stigma and discrimination against them.  Regardless of the level or type of substance use, they have the same rights to health, education, work opportunities and reintegration into society as any other individual.

Most Abused Drugs in the US

In the United States, millions of people struggle with drug abuse each year and face addiction sooner or later as a result. Legal drugs like opiates and alcohol are easily available and it is easier to obtain and abuse.  Illicit drugs like MMJ, cocaine, 6-MAM, etc., are also available in different forms making it easier to obtain, which is equally addicting.

Addiction ruins an individual’s life, disabling life progress, disrupting relationships, work and/or school performance and affecting daily life overall.

According to the National Survey conducted by SAMHSA on Drug Use and Health, the most commonly used addictive drugs in the United States are:

  • Alcohol
  • Cocaine
  • Hallucinogens
  • 6-MAM
  • Inhalants
  • MMJ
  • Methamphetamine
  • MDMA
  • Prescription opioids
  • Sedatives
  • Stimulants
  • Tobacco
  • Tranquilizers

While many people are aware of legal substances like alcohol and illegal drugs like cocaine and MMJ (in most states) are abused, it is less known that inhalants like household cleaning products and over-the-counter medications like cold medications are some of the most commonly abused substances. Following are the drugs and types of drugs that people commonly abuse and/or result in dependence:

  • Alcohol:  Though legal, alcohol is a toxic substance. Alcoholism is one of the most common addictions and can lead to negative consequences on an individual’s physical well-being, ability to function interpersonally and at work. Pregnant women ingesting drugs or alcohol can be detrimental to developing fetus. Some of the negative consequences of alcohol include deaths from liver disease, alcohol overdose. Thousands of lives are lost every year due to drunk driving.
  • Cocaine: This is a stimulant used as a recreational drug.  Cocaine tends to stimulate the nervous system.  It is highly addictive and available in form of powder and rocks.  These are usually snorted, smoked (crack) and injected into veins when made into a liquid.  Crack cocaine is cheaper and more intense than regular cocaine.
  • Hallucinogens.  It is a psychoactive agent that causes hallucinations, disrupts the perceptions of reality in an intoxicated person, and other substantial subjective changes in thought process.  LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), magic mushrooms (psilocybin), ketamine and mescaline (Peyote), PCP (phencyclidine), are some of the hallucinogens used recreationally. Misperceptions often lead to dangerous behaviors like jumping out of a window imagining to have wings and can fly.  These drugs can cause a person to feel highly suspicious, become very aggressive, to have an exceptional amount of physical strength and making the person quite dangerous to others.
  • 6-MAM.  It is a relatively inexpensive illicit drug made from morphine and has a high potential for addiction. 6-MAM abuse among young women has increased in US and there is also growing concern regarding users contracting and spreading diseases like HIV/AIDS by sharing needles.
  • Inhalants.  Because of its easy accessibility, inhalants are one of the most commonly abused groups of substances. These are volatile toxic substances usually found in household cleaners like bleach, ammonia, gasoline, aerosols and other substances that emit fumes. An inhalant can cause brain damage making complete recovery more difficult and even death depending on the use.
  • MMJ.  It is a common psychotropic drug extracted from dried leaves, stems, flowers and seeds of the Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica plant.  It stimulates the brain cell receptors leading to mood swings, paranoia, memory and learning impairment, hallucinations, breathing problems, etc.  Medical cannabis is used as antispasmodic agent, analgesic, THC, etc.  MMJ offers euphoric effects when smoked, ingested, snorted, or injected.  MMJ has been legalized in some states.
  • Methamphetamine.  It is a strong central nervous system stimulant that is mainly used recreationally and less commonly as a second-line treatment for ADHD and obesity.  There are various forms of this drug, from prescription medications like Ritalin, Concerta, Focalin and Adderall to illicit drugs like methamphetamine (crystal meth). Overdose of any of these drugs can result in seizure and death.
  • MDMA.  This drug is also known as Ecstasy or Molly and tends to create a sense of euphoria and an expansive love or desire to nurture others. Overdose can result in increased body temperature to the point of causing death. It acts on the neurotransmitters in the brain like noradrenaline, serotonin and dopamine.
  • Prescription opioids.  These are most commonly known as narcotics or painkillers that are prescribed to treat moderate-to-severe or chronic pain. These drugs help in blocking pain signals between the brain and the body. Most patients become addicted to prescription painkillers and don’t notice the problem until they try to stop use. Painkillers are also obtained over-the-counter which in turn can also lead to addiction.  Some of the opioids are codeine, hydrocodone, morphine, methadone, Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, and Percodan.
  • Sedatives.  These are also called as hypnotic or antianxiety drugs. It is the second most commonly used group of illegal drugs. These substances help in calming the nervous system. If these drugs are used in high doses or mixed with other drugs like alcohol, opiate or another sedative drug, it could lead to death of a person by stopping the breathing (respiratory arrest). Sleeping pills is one of the commonly abused drug.
  • Stimulants.  Stimulant drugs are highly addictive in nature and make it difficult to quit with intense withdrawal symptoms. These drugs range from prescription drugs like Adderall or Ritalin to illicit substances like meth. People who frequently use stimulants quickly build a tolerance to the drug’s euphoric feeling resulting in increased use and overdose risk.
  • Tobacco.  Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances found in cigarettes.  Nicotine addiction may not appear as harmful as many other addictions because tobacco products are legal and easy to get, and the side effects of abusing them take time to develop. Tobacco use claims more lives than any other addictive substance. Many smokers cannot quit despite knowing its impact on their health.  In the case of addiction, people find it difficult to quit.
  • Tranquilizers.  These antipsychotic drugs are typically used to treat disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other mood disorders such as anxiety, fear, agitation, mind disturbances, tension.  Abusing these drugs could lead to difficulty breathing, coma, and possible death.  Withdrawal symptoms of some barbiturates include seizures and delirium and suicidal ideations in benzodiazepines.
  • Anabolic Steroid Abuse:  These are synthetic form of testosterone that includes natural androgens like testosterone as well as synthetic androgens.  These are used illegally by bodybuilders and athletes to increase muscle, enhance athletic performance, decrease fat and body appearance.  It could lead to devastating emotional symptoms like mood swings, aggression and paranoia as well as severe long-term physical effects like infertility and organ failure.
  • Caffeine:  Many people consume coffee, tea, and soda routinely.  When consumed in excess, this substance can be habit-forming resulting in palpitations, tremors, irritability, insomnia, and significant anxiety.

Drug and Alcohol Abuse Statistics

  • About 21 million Americans have at least one addiction, but merely 10% of them receive treatment.
  • Individuals who abuse prescription opioids are 40% more likely to use 6-MAM than those who don’t.
  • About 80% of the world’s prescription painkiller supply is consumed by United States.
  • About 17 million adults in the United States suffer from alcoholism.
  • Per year, approximately 88,000 people die due to alcohol.
  • People using benzodiazepines long-term have an increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Alcohol and drug addiction cost the US economy over $600 billion every year.
  • About 130 people in the United States die every day from opioid overdose.
  • About 494,000 Americans over the age of 12 use 6-MAM regularly.
  • Around 15,000 Americans died from 6-MAM overdose in 2017.
  • About 30 to 40 million Americans smoke MMJ every year.
  • About 43% of Americans admit to trying MMJ.
  • About 30% of Americans have MMJ use disorder.
  • Around 34 million Americans smoke cigarettes.
  • Smoking cigarettes cause over 480,000 deaths every year in the US.
  • Around 5 million people in America are regular cocaine users.
  • Cocaine-related overdose deaths have increased by 34% since 2016.
  • Around 774,000 Americans are regular meth users and about 16,000 of them are between ages 12 and 17.
  • Around 964,000 Americans are addicted to meth.
  • The number of fatal meth overdose cases almost tripled from 2011 to 2016.
  • Around 1.4 million Americans are regular hallucinogen users. About 143,000 of them are between the ages of 12 and 17.
  • More than 23 million people in United States have tried an inhalant at least once in their lives.
  • Nearly 556,000 Americans are regular inhalant users.
  • Inhalants contribute to about 15% of deaths due to suffocation every year.


Following an evidence-based public health approach, effective steps can be taken to prevent and treat substance-related issues. It can prevent substance initiation or escalation from use to a disorder, and reduce the number of people suffering with addiction.  It can shorten the duration of illness for sufferers as well as reduce the number of substance abuse related deaths. A public health approach will also reduce collateral damage created by substance abuse, such as infectious disease transmission and motor vehicle accidents.

It is possible to change attitudes toward substance misuse and substance use disorders by coming together as a society with the resolve to do so. There is a strong scientific as well as moral case for addressing substance use disorders with a public health model that focuses on reducing both health and social justice disparities.

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