Commonly Abused Drugs

An estimated 57.2 million Americans aged 12 and over used illicit drugs in the past year, according to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). That means about 20.8% of the U.S. population uses illegal drugs. The category of illicit drugs includes marijuana, psychotherapeutic drugs (prescription pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives used for non-medical purposes), cocaine, hallucinogens (including ecstasy), methamphetamine, inhalants, and heroin.


Of the 57.2 million illicit drug users reported by 2019 NSDUH, 48.2 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 may have influenced an 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 late 2012. According to a 2020 survey released by the Rocky Mountain High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (RMHIDTA) office, past-month usage of the drug by teenagers (ages 12 to 17) in the state is 43% higher than the national average. The RMHIDTA report is disputed by some observers, however, due to allegations of bias.

Learn more about marijuana:


The NSDUH report lists three categories of psychotherapeutic drugs that are prone to misuse: prescription pain relievers, stimulants, and sedatives/tranquilizers. The "non-medical" use of these drugs is defined as use without a prescription and/or done in a way not directed by a doctor.

The 2019 NSDUH survey estimates that 16.3 million people misused psychotherapeutic drugs in the past year. Around 9.7 million people misused prescription pain relievers specifically, making them the second most common illicit drug.

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:


An estimated 5.5 million Americans used cocaine or crack cocaine in 2019, according to NSDUH. 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. According to NSDUH, an estimated 6 million people in the United States used hallucinogens in 2019.

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.


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.

In 2019, an estimated 2 million people 12 or older used methamphetamine, which is made from ingredients that include over-the-counter medications. Methamphetamine, especially crystal methamphetamine, poses 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 2.1 million people aged 12 and over used inhalants in 2019.

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.

In the United States, the 12 to 17 age group has the largest proportion of inhalant usage, according to NSDUH estimates.


Although illegal and very addicting, heroin made a so-called "comeback" during the opioid crisis. There were predictions that the U.S. government's crackdown on pain pill abuse would prompt people addicted to prescription opioids to switch to heroin, but thankfully research has not shown this to be the case. Although many people who use heroin abused prescription opioids in the past, most people who abuse pain pills do not go on to use heroin.

According to the 2019 NSDUH, an estimated 745,000 people in the United States use heroin. Heroin usage is most common in rural areas, with particularly high rates in the Appalachia region.

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.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Pauly NJ, Slavova S, Delcher C, Freeman PR, Talbert J. Features of prescription drug monitoring programs associated with reduced rates of prescription opioid-related poisonings. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2018;184:26-32. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2017.12.002

  3. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. History: 1985-1990.

  4. Aikins RD. From recreational to functional drug use: the evolution of drugs in American higher education, 1960–2014. Hist Educ. 2015;44(1):25-43. doi:10.1080/0046760X.2014.979251

  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. MDMA (Ecstasy/Molly) DrugFacts.

  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Methamphetamine DrugFacts.

  7. Dobkin C, Nicosia N, Weinberg M. Are supply-side drug control efforts effective? Evaluating OTC regulations targeting methamphetamine precursors. J Public Econ. 2014;120:48-61. doi:10.1016/j.jpubeco.2014.07.011

  8. Compton WM, Jones CM, Baldwin GT. Relationship between nonmedical prescription-opioid use and heroin use. N Engl J Med. 2016;374:154-163. doi:10.1056/NEJMra1508490

  9. Allen ST, O'Rourke A, White RH, Schneider KE, Kilkenny M, Sherman SG. Estimating the number of people who inject drugs in a rural county in Appalachia. Am J Public Health. 2019;109;3:445-450. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2018.304873

Additional Reading

By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.