Commonly Abused Drugs

An estimated 53.2 million Americans age 12 and over report that they currently use illicit drugs, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). That means about 19 percent of the U.S. population admits using illegal drugs, which fall into ten categories including marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, hallucinogens and inhalants; and prescription-type pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives used for non-medical purposes.

The most commonly abused drugs are listed below in the order of their popularity in the United States from the most popular to the least. Use of alcohol and tobacco products, while illegal for youths, is not included in NSDUH survey data.


Of the 53.2 million illicit drug users reported by NSDUH, 43.5 million of them note having used marijuana within the past year, making it the most widely used drug in the country. Marijuana is sometimes called a "gateway drug" because it tends to be the first illegal drug young people use.

The legalization of marijuana for medical purposes and recreational use in some states has influenced a rapid increase in the number of people who use the drug because its use is now viewed by many young people as less harmful.

Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2014. According to a 2019 survey released by the Rocky Mountain High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) office, use of the drug by young people in the state is now 40 percent higher than the national average. The HIDRA report is disputed by some observers.

Learn more about marijuana:


The second-largest drug problem in the United States today is the non-medical use of certain prescription medications. The NSDUH report combines four categories of these (prescription-type pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives) into a category called "psychotherapeutics." The "non-medical" use of these drugs is defined as use without a prescription or simply the use for the experience or feeling the drugs caused.

The NSDUH survey estimates that 16.9 million people misused psychotherapeutic drugs in the past month, including 9.9 million people who misused prescription pain relievers.

The use of prescription-tracking systems and a law enforcement crackdown on "pill mills" have slowed the growth of the prescription drug addiction epidemic, but it remains a growing public health concern.

Learn more about a few psychotherapeutic drugs that are commonly abused:

  • Basic Facts About OxyContin
    Prescribed to help relieve chronic pain, it is highly addictive.
  • Codeine
    How long does codeine remain in the body?
  • Morphine
    Commonly prescribed for pain that can't be relieved by other painkillers
  • Fentanyl
    Typically prescribed to treat "breakthrough pain" while taking other pain medication
  • Amphetamine
    Can cause a wide variety of negative health effects when abused
  • Barbiturates
    The danger of sedative overdose is very high when it is abused.


An estimated 5.5 million Americans used cocaine or crack cocaine in the year prior to the survey. Depending on the form of the drug, cocaine can be snorted, injected, and even smoked. In all cases, cocaine is a strong central nervous system stimulant that affects the brain's processing of dopamine.

Cocaine use in the United States has fallen significantly from the height of its popularity in the 1980s, but in some segments of society, it is still available and popular.


Hallucinogens include a variety of substances—LSD, PCP, peyote, mescaline, psilocybin mushrooms and others—all of which can be abused. An estimated 5.6 million people in the United States used hallucinogens.

The use of hallucinogens probably peaked in the hippie movement of the 1960s and 1970s, but they are still around; plenty of young people are willing to experiment with their mind-altering effects.

  • Frequently Asked Questions About Hallucinogens
    What is the difference between hallucinogens and dissociative drugs?
  • LSD
    Exactly how LSD affects the human brain is not completely understood.
  • PCP
    Medical use of PCP was stopped when patients reported psychotic reactions.
  • Mescaline
    It comes from the small peyote cactus plant, but can also be man-made.
  • Psilocybin
    The effect of the drug can be very unpredictable.


Another drug included in the NSDUH's hallucinogens category is ecstasy, or MDMA (3,4-methylendioxymethamphetamine). MDMA—also called molly, ecstasy, or XTC on the street—is a synthetic, psychoactive, mind-altering drug with hallucinogenic and amphetamine-like properties.

Ecstasy began as a favorite of young people attending raves, but officials indicate its use has moved into other segments of society in recent years.


Prior to the 2015 NSDUH study, methamphetamine was included in the psychotherapeutics category of drugs because it is legally available by prescription (Desoxyn). Recognizing that most of the meth available today is produced and distributed illegally, the survey made meth its own category.

An estimated 897,000 people 12 or older are current users of methamphetamine, which is made from ingredients that include over-the-counter medications. Methamphetamine, especially crystal methamphetamine, pose specific health threats, particularly if it is taken intravenously.

A move by many states to place allergy and cold medications—which are used to produce illegal meth—behind the counter has reduced the number of clandestine meth labs throughout the country. However, international drug cartels have reportedly stepped in to supply the continued demand for the highly-addictive drug.


Inhalants are breathable chemical vapors that produce psychoactive (mind-altering) effects that are often abused by young people because they are not illegal and are easily accessible. An estimated 2 million people use inhalants each month.

Inhalants are most popular among very young children who are trying to get high. As they grow older, teens find ways to get other drugs, mostly alcohol and marijuana.

Of the users of inhalants in the United States, the largest percentage of usage is in the 12 to 17 age group, according to NSDUH estimates.


Although illegal and very addicting, heroin use, unfortunately, has made something of a comeback as a "chic" drug among today's young people who snort or smoke it instead of injecting it. About 808,000 people were identified as heroin users in the United States.

In recent years, heroin has seen an increase in use, which has been blamed on the crackdown on prescription pain-pill abuse. As pain medication became more expensive and more difficult to obtain, those abusing the pills who lived in urban areas began to turn to cheaper, more available heroin, officials believe.

Now, even in poor, rural areas of the country—such as Appalachia, where drugs like oxycontin are referred to as "hillbilly heroin"—an increase in actual heroin use has been reported in recent years by health and law enforcement officials.

Getting Help

If you think that you have developed a problem with drugs or you believe you are addicted, you don't have to deal with it by yourself. You can get help. There are many resources available to help you kick the habit and gain control over your life. You might want to seek professional treatment or join a mutual support group.

If you have already stopped using drugs, you might want to see Tips for Staying Clean and Sober.

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Article Sources
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  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services. Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Updated 2019.

  2. The Rocky Mountain High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. The Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado: The Impact. Rocky Mountain High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. (6).September 2019.