Most Commonly Abused Drugs in the United States
Drug abuse is a real crisis in the United States. In 2017 alone, 70,237 Americans died from overdoses. That number includes overdoses from both illicit (illegal) drugs and prescription opioids, but not from alcohol. When you compare it to the 16,849 people who died from overdoses in 1999, that’s a huge increase over the span of two decades.
Most Common Substance Abuse
The U.S. surgeon general’s report on addiction in America divides substances into three major categories:
- Illicit drugs (includes prescription drugs used nonmedically)
- Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs
Illicit and prescription drug misuse remains high, with more than 27.1 million people admitting to substance abuse. That exacts a steep toll, too, costing the nation more than $400 billion each year in crime, health care, and lost productivity.
Most Abused Drug in the U.S.
Alcohol easily ranks as the number one drug in America. The 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that 86.3 percent of Americans ages 18 and older sampled alcohol at least once in their lives. More than 70 percent of respondents said they drank alcohol in the last year, and 55.9 percent said they drank in the last month.
The surgeon general’s 2015 data stated that 66.7 million Americans admitted to binge drinking (five or more drinks on one occasion for men, or four or more drinks for women) within the past month.
Abusing alcohol can even be fatal. It leads to 88,000 deaths in the U.S. every year.
According to the surgeon general’s report, in 2014 marijuana was the most frequently used illicit drug. Marijuana is illegal on the federal level, although a number of U.S. states allow people to use it for medical and/or recreational purposes.
Marijuana’s use has steadily climbed over the last decade. In 2013, there were an estimated 19.8 million users, or 7.5 percent of the U.S. population ages 12 and older. That’s an increase from 14.5 million, or 5.8 percent, in 2007.
Youth is king for experimentation. More than half of first-time marijuana users were younger than 18.
Most Common Addictions
It’s hard to pinpoint one single substance as the most addictive drug. The National Institute on Drug Abuse fielded questions from schools, including which drug is the most habit forming. NIDA’s answer, in brief, was: “All drugs are potentially dangerous.”
A person’s environment, the kind of substance they misuse, how often they use the substance, and genetic components are all factors that may determine whether a person tapers off their substance use or develops an addiction.
Since the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that 25.1 percent of adults 18 and older have binged booze in the past year, alcohol is definitely a problematic substance. It’s not the only one, however.
The Centers for Disease Control reported on the drugs most linked to overdose deaths in 2016. For the 54,793 unintentional overdose deaths that year:
- Fentanyl was linked to 16,981, or 31 percent, of overdose deaths
- Heroin, 15,075, or 27.5 percent of deaths
- Cocaine, 10,618, or 19.4 percent
- Methamphetamine (meth), 6,448, or 11.8 percent
- Alprazolam (commonly sold as Xanax and under other brand names), 5,510, or 10.1 percent
In overdose suicides, oxycodone, diphenhydramine, hydrocodone, and alprazolam were the most cited.
For undetermined overdose deaths, fentanyl, heroin, morphine, cocaine, and oxycodone were the deadliest, with fentanyl being linked to nearly a third, or 32.5 percent, of fatalities.
Looking at overdose deaths from 2011 to 2016, the CDC found that cocaine usually ranked as the second or third deadliest drug. Heroin claimed the most lives from 2012 to 2015, and fentanyl was responsible for the most overdose deaths in 2016. Fentanyl deaths steadily doubled every year from 2013 to 2016, while methadone deaths slipped slightly from 2011 to 2016.
Statistics indicated that the drugs most linked to overdose deaths belonged to one of three classes:
- Opioids (fentanyl, heroin, hydrocodone, methadone, morphine, oxycodone)
- Benzodiazepines (alprazolam and diazepam)
- Stimulants (cocaine and methamphetamine)
The so-called top 10 drugs were found frequently combined with one another. Both nationally and globally, many people use more than one drug simultaneously, making for a wide variety of potentially deadly combinations.
Tobacco use, long the bane of healthy habits, has dropped over the decades. Sort of.
In 1964, 40 percent of U.S. adults smoked. That was the year the surgeon general first issued a report on smoking and health. Throughout the decades, the public has become more aware of smoking’s links to heart and lung diseases as well as a number of cancers. While the rate of smoking has halved, this means that around 20 percent of U.S. adults still currently smoke.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse said that one-fourth of the U.S. population uses tobacco products. In 2016, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) estimated that in the previous month, 63.4 million people ages 12 and older used some form of tobacco.
Between 1964 and 2012, it’s estimated that 17.7 million people died smoking-related deaths, and more than 480,000 continue to die annually. More people may drink alcohol, but smoking takes its own deadly toll.
Nicotine is highly addictive, and about half of all smokers try to quit every year. About 6 percent manage to stop, but it often takes several attempts.
Smoking can lead to a number of health problems, including:
- Cancers, including mouth, throat, stomach, kidney, and bladder
- Lung diseases, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases that include chronic bronchitis and emphysema
- Heart disease and disorders, including strokes and heart attacks (40 percent of cardiovascular disease deaths are connected to smoking)
While the number of people smoking traditional tobacco products has declined, vaping, or smoking e-cigarettes, has taken off in a big way, making it one of the most popular drugs. E-cigarettes were first introduced in 2007.
Some people vape to try to quit using traditional cigarettes, but in 2015, the surgeon general found that e-cigarettes among high schoolers has climbed by 900 percent, and 40 percent of young vapers never smoked a regular cigarette.
From 2017 to 2019, vaping increased from 11 to 25 percent among 12th graders, and from 8 to 20 percent among 10th graders. More youths are vaping, too, and not just nicotine but also marijuana.
Worst Drug in the World
When posing the question, what is the worst drug in the world, there’s not really a clear-cut answer.
The worst one is personal. It’s the one that has the most dire effect on you or a loved one.
In 2017, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) issued a Global Overview of Drug Demand and Supply and revealed some surprising statistics. The UNODC estimated that globally, a quarter of a billion people, or 5 percent of the world’s adult population, used drugs at least one time in 2015. Of that number, 29.5 million had a drug use disorder.
Opioids have the most negative impact, and in terms of addictive pain medications, they are the most problematic. An estimated 70 percent of the global burden of disease can be blamed on opioids (including heroin).
Cannabis is the world’s most-used illicit drug. It’s estimated that 3.8 percent of the world’s adult population or about 183 million people regularly use marijuana.
Amphetamines are the second most-used drug. An estimated 35 million people have used amphetamines.
Drug use — especially among those who inject substances — makes users more likely to contract viruses such as hepatitis C and HIV. Left untreated, hepatitis C can lead to a slew of other conditions, including liver cirrhosis (scarring) and cancer.
Some kind of drug, be it nicotine, alcohol, or fentanyl, is bound to be the worst or the most dangerous or problematic for someone. When it affects one’s health, work, or relationships, it may be time to seek help.
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- hopkinsmedicine.org – 5 Vaping Facts You Need to Know
- niaaa.nih.gov – Alcohol Facts and Statistics
- cdc.gov – Alcohol Use
- pewresearch.org – Before Recent Outbreak, Vaping Was on the Rise in U.S., Especially Among Young People
- health.harvard.edu – Caution: These Are the Most Addictive Pain Meds
- cdc.gov – Drugs Most Frequently Involved in Drug Overdose Deaths: United States 2011-2016
- addiction.surgeongeneral.gov – Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health
- unodc.org – Global Overview of Drug Demand and Supply
- ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – The Health Consequences of Smoking – 50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General
- drugabuse.gov – Nationwide Trends
- drugabuse.gov – Overdose Death Rates
- teens.drugabuse.gov – Real Teens Ask: Which Drug is Most Addictive?
- drugabuse.gov – Tobacco, Nicotine, and E-Cigarettes
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