Today, more people are addicted to drugs and alcohol than ever before. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 40.3 million Americans had a substance use disorder in 2020. That’s almost 20 million more than in 2017, although part of that increase is thanks to new definitions in what counts as a substance use disorder. The truth remains that almost 1 in 10 Americans are addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Often, substance use disorders happen over time, as people try drugs, become dependent, and then that turns into an addiction. Sometimes that’s because individuals are especially vulnerable to addiction. In other cases, it’s because the drugs are extremely addictive, and any prolonged usage is likely to result in addiction. However, some of the most addictive drugs are ones we use every day.
Which Drugs are the Most Addictive?
Many drugs have addiction-inducing effects, where people are very likely to develop cravings, withdrawal symptoms, and seeking behavior for the drug. In 2007, researchers developed a scale to measure those impacts, showing which drugs have the highest potential of misuse or addiction. That scale is based on speed of chemical dependence, severity of withdrawal symptoms, and 7 other factors. That 9-point matrix then maps drugs in order of likelihood of abuse.
Nicotine – Nicotine is #5 on the list of most addictive drugs. Nearly everyone knows someone who smokes. That’s because 30.8 million Americans do smoke. Of those, nearly 85% state intentions to quit smoking with many trying. And, with people attempting to quit 9-32 times before successfully quitting nicotine, this drug is incredibly difficult to put down. Part of that is because of social habits and the fact that smoking is something you do, a social activity, and a way to have a break. It’s also because nicotine hits the brain in less than a few seconds, resulting in low-level dependence. Eventually, once you’re chemically dependent on nicotine, quitting it means going through several days of withdrawal symptoms followed by up to months of cravings. And, that’s only made worse by the fact that the effects of nicotine fade quickly, pushing users to take more of the drug to maintain the effect of calm that it produces.
Barbiturates – Barbiturates are #4 on the list of most addictive drugs despite being a prescription medication. These drugs were one of the first antidepressants, used to treat anxiety, to help people relax, and to enable sleep. They can also function as a powerful painkiller. Today, use is quickly declining because of their high potential for addiction and poor efficacy compared to newer drugs. However, they still exist and may still be prescribed. You can also get them illegally as a street drug, where people combine them with alcohol for extreme euphoric, sedative, and relaxing effects. However, barbiturates are extremely addictive and induce tolerance quickly. Once you become chemically dependent, barbiturates can cause seizures when you go into withdrawal. For that reason, people with addictions are forced to keep using the drug to feel okay.
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Crack Cocaine – While cocaine is much further towards the bottom of the list of most addictive drugs, crack cocaine is #3 as one of the most addictive drugs out there. Crack cocaine is used by 14-20 million people worldwide and is responsible for a considerable percentage of hospital visits. Like nicotine, it reaches the brain quickly – although within a few minutes – when inhaled, resulting in quick chemical dependence and reliance. And, like nicotine, cocaine wears off quickly, forcing users to keep taking hits in order to maintain the effect. That’s problematic, considering crack cocaine causes chemical dependency and then results in seeking behavior, otherwise known as addiction. Smoking crack cocaine is also extremely dangerous, with many suffering from side-effects like burns, deteriorating teeth hygiene and health, mouth sores, and even burns in the esophagus.
Amphetamines – Amphetamines include drugs used for medical purposes and some of the most addictive drugs on the planet. For example, many drugs used to treat attention disorders are amphetamines. While many of these do not have a large addiction profile, other amphetamines do. For example, methamphetamine is used by 2.5 million people, about 1.5 million of which are addicted to the drug. That high rate of addiction is normal for the drug class, with most amphetamines showing a similar rate. Methamphetamine causes a high and euphoria which can last as long as 24 hours, after which users crash and sleep, sometimes for days. That can result in people using meth just to stay awake or to avoid significant withdrawal symptoms. And, some people develop seeking behavior after only a few times using the drug.
Opiates – Opiates are the most commonly used drug in the United States. Unfortunately, they’re also the most addictive. Today, opioid drugs like fentanyl are also one of the most deadly, causing in over 70% of all drug-related emergency-room visits resulting in death. Opioids are also the most common pain medication used following surgeries or to treat chronic pain. That often results in dependence and addiction, because opioids are habit-forming. Plus, with 68,630 opioid-related overdose deaths in the United States in 2020, opiates are extremely dangerous.
Why Are Some Drugs More Addictive Than Others?
Drug addiction or a substance use disorder is dependent on dozens of factors. In some cases, people can become heavily addicted to drugs with a relatively light addiction profile. That’s because a large part of addiction comes from vulnerability or risk factors such as a pat history of trauma, mental health disorders, previous problems with drug or alcohol abuse, a family history of substance use disorders, or even some genetics.
The study ranking drugs based on their addictive potential uses factors like:
- The drug’s interaction with the dopamine system int eh brain
- How quickly withdrawal symptoms develop
- The severity of withdrawal symptoms
- The percentage of people who develop seeking behavior or dependence on the drug when using it
- Cognitive changes caused by the drug
- Physical changes caused by the drug
- Amount of pleasure reported by individuals who are high on the drug
- Actual street value
All of these factors can be important in predicting whether a drug is addictive or not. However, people vary a great deal. What is extremely addictive to one person may be less so to another. Any time you take any drug, you are taking a risk. And, that remains true even if you’re taking a relatively common drug or one that is supposed to be “safe”.
If you or a loved one is using drugs recreationally, there is always a risk. It’s important to assess how you’re using drugs and why, to understand that drugs are always a risk, and to ask for help if you can’t quit or slow down on your own.
If you or a loved one would like more information about drug rehab, alcohol rehab, dual diagnosis rehab, or detox please contact us to speak in complete confidence with one of our experienced treatment advisors today.