Updated on February 6, 2024
7 min read

What Are the Most Popular Drugs in the U.S.?

Key Takeaways

The most common drugs used in America include:

1. Nicotine

In 2019, 14 percent of U.S. adults smoked cigarettes. This equates to 34.1 million people, including 15.3 percent of men and 12.7 percent of women.4

Nicotine addiction may not seem as harmful as many other addictions since tobacco products are legal and easy to buy in the U.S. 

Additionally, the worst side effects of tobacco use take time to develop. 

Tobacco use takes more lives than any other addictive drug. Many smokers can’t quit even though they know the impact smoking has on their health.

Wanting to quit tobacco use but being unable to is a sign of addiction and a need for treatment.

2. Alcohol

In the U.S., over 85.6 percent of people over 18 reported drinking alcohol at some point in their lives.5

The social acceptance of drinking can make an alcohol use disorder (AUD) hard to spot. Alcohol is legal, but it comes with many health risks, including addiction.

There are a number of negative consequences which can result from AUD. It can lead to death from: 

  • Liver disease
  • Alcohol overdose
  • Drunk driving
  • Other serious health issues

3. Marijuana

Marijuana is the most popular federally illegal drug in the United States. In 2019, approximately 48.2 million people, or 18 percent of Americans, used it at least once.7

In some states, the legalization of marijuana has made the drug more socially acceptable,  minimizing potential unwanted consequences such as cannabis dependence. 

4. Painkillers

According to the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated two million Americans misused prescription pain killers for the first time.6 

The following drugs are commonly prescribed to treat pain:

  • Codeine
  • Vicodin
  • Oxycontin

Painkillers’ prescription status doesn’t mean they aren’t addictive. Painkiller addiction can develop even from moderate use.

Most people who become addicted to prescription painkillers don’t notice they are dependent until they try to stop taking them. 

Painkillers can be obtained illegally without a prescription, which may provide a pathway for unwanted addiction.

5. Cocaine

Overdose deaths from cocaine are rising. More than 16,000 Americans died from a cocaine overdose in 2019.8

Crack cocaine is cheaper and more intense than regular cocaine and poses a great risk for substance use disorder (SUD).

6. Heroin

In 2016, about 948,000 Americans reported using heroin in the past year. This number has been on the rise since 2007.9 

Heroin’s severe withdrawal symptoms make quitting heroin use challenging. 

Treating heroin addiction usually requires a combination of therapy and medications to manage withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

People who inject drugs, such as heroin, are at risk of contracting or spreading viral illnesses such as hepatitis or HIV from sharing needles.

7. Benzodiazepines

Approximately 12.5 percent of Americans use benzodiazepines. This is equal to around 30.5 million people.10

About 2 percent of Americans misuse benzodiazepines. However, only 0.2 percent met the criteria for a benzodiazepine use disorder.

Common benzodiazepines include:

  • Valium
  • Xanax
  • Klonopin

These drugs are mood-regulating. They are used to manage conditions like stress and anxiety.

People who develop an addiction to these drugs often aren’t aware they are dependent until they can’t function normally without them.

Withdrawal from a benzodiazepine is complex. Under supervision, medical professionals can work to increase safety and help to greatly reduce the intensity and duration of symptoms that occur during detox.

8. Stimulants

According to a survey from 2015 to 2016, 5 million Americans misused prescription stimulants.11 

Stimulants include prescription drugs like Adderall or Ritalin. They also include illicit substances like meth.

These drugs are highly addictive. Intense withdrawal symptoms make quitting stimulants difficult. 

Stimulant users can easily build a tolerance to the drug’s ‘high.’ This may lead to increased use and risk of overdose.

9. Inhalants 

Inhalant use is more popular among adolescents than adults. In 2015, approximately 684,000 adolescents aged 12 to 17 used inhalants in the previous year.12

Addiction to inhalants is particularly dangerous because they are toxic substances. 

The effects of these substances are quick and intense and may result in serious consequences like hospitalization or death.

Chemicals common in inhalants can remain in the body and brain long after stopping use. This can cause lasting damage, making a complete recovery challenging.

10. Barbiturates

In 2018, around 405,000 Americans aged 12 and older reported using barbiturates. In the same year, approximately 32,000 Americans aged 12 and older reported misusing barbiturates.13

Barbiturates can be included in the larger category of sleeping pills. They can treat tension and sleep disorders.

The mind-altering effects caused by sleeping pills may lead to dependency, tolerance, and abuse. 


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Which Drugs are the Most Addictive? 

The most addictive drugs include:14

  • Heroin
  • Cocaine
  • Nicotine
  • Barbiturates
  • Alcohol

The following popular drugs aren’t as addictive:

  • Inhalants
  • Ritalin
  • Marijuana

It’s possible to become addicted to any of the drugs listed above. None of these drugs are recommended for recreational use. Use should be monitored under the supervision of a healthcare provider.

Signs of Substance Use Disorder (SUD) 

Symptoms or behaviors of drug addiction include:2

  • Feeling like you need to use the drug regularly, including daily or several times a day 
  • Experiencing intense urges for the drug 
  • Requiring more of the drug over time to achieve the same effects
  • Taking more of the drug over a longer period than intended 
  • Ensuring you maintain a supply of the drug 
  • Spending money on the substance, even if you can't afford to
  • Not meeting obligations and work responsibilities
  • Reducing hobbies and activities due to drug use 
  • Continuing to use the drug, even if it's causing problems in your life or physical or psychological harm 
  • Doing things to obtain the drug that you wouldn’t normally do, like stealing
  • Driving or engaging in other risky activities when you're under the influence
  • Spending a lot of time obtaining, using, or recovering from the effects of the drug 
  • Failing to stop using the drug 
  • Developing withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking the drug

Addiction Treatment Options

There are various addiction treatment options, including:3

  • Behavioral counseling
  • Medication-assisted treatment (MAT)
  • Medical care and devices to manage withdrawal symptoms
  • Assessment and treatment for co-occurring mental health issues like depression and anxiety
  • Long-term follow-up to prevent relapse 

Treatment can include both medication and mental health services. Follow-ups may include family-based or community recovery support systems.

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The Different Categories of Drugs

Drug classifications organize drugs into different categories.

Classifying drugs by chemical similarities is helpful because they usually exhibit common effects and risks. Chemically related drugs are used to treat similar conditions.

Although the chemical characteristics of drugs may be related, the medical effects and legality of the substances may be different. 

Drug classifications based on chemical makeup include:

  • Alcohol
  • Opioids
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Cannabinoids
  • Barbiturates

Drug classifications based on effect include:

  • Depressants
  • Stimulants
  • Hallucinogens
  • Inhalants

Why Do People Use Drugs? 

People use drugs for many reasons, including:1 

  • To feel better
  • To perform better in school or at work
  • They are curious
  • They want to fit in (common among teens)
  • Drugs excite the areas of the brain that make people feel good

If you use a drug too often, the feel-good parts of your brain get used to it. You’ll need to take more of the drug to achieve the same effect. 

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Factors That Affect Drug Use

People of any age, economic status, or sex can become addicted to a drug. Factors that have been shown to increase the likelihood of a person taking drugs include: 

1. Family History

Drug addiction is more common in some families than others. It likely involves genetic predisposition. 

If you have a blood relative, such as a parent or sibling, who drinks alcohol or takes drugs, you’re at greater risk of drug use.

2. Mental Health History

A higher incidence of drug use is seen in people who have a mental health disorder such as depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Using drugs can be a way of coping with difficult feelings that accompany mental health disorders. However, drug use can make these conditions worse.

3. Peer Pressure

Peer pressure can lead to risk taking behaviors like drug use. This is especially true for young people.

4. Lack of Family Involvement

Challenging family situations or a lack of bond with relatives may increase the risk of drug use. A lack of parental supervision can also increase the risk.

5. Taking a Highly Addictive Drug

Some drugs may lead to higher drug use and faster development of addiction than others. For example, stimulants, cocaine, or opioid painkillers can be highly addictive. 

Smoking or injecting drugs can also increase the likelihood of addiction. Taking drugs that are considered less addictive, like marijuana, can influence future drug use and addiction.

6. Accessibility

Drugs are easier to obtain in some locations compared to others. For example, certain drugs are easier to find in large cities as opposed to rural locations.

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Updated on February 6, 2024
14 sources cited
Updated on February 6, 2024
  1. The Science of Drug Use: A Resource for the Justice Sector, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH), May 2020
  2. Drug addiction (substance use disorder, Mayo Clinic, Oct. 2017
  3. NIDA. "Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction DrugFacts." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 17 Jan. 2019
  4. Smoking & tobacco use, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dec.2020
  5. Alcohol Facts and Statistics, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Jun. 2021
  6. NIDA. "What is the scope of prescription drug misuse?." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 13 Apr. 2021
  7. Marijuana and Public Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Jun. 2021
  8. Cocaine, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH)
  9. NIDA. "What is the scope of heroin use in the United States?." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 13 Apr. 2021
  10. NIDA. "Research suggests benzodiazepine use is high while use disorder rates are low." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 18 Oct. 2018
  11. NIDA. "Five million American adults misusing prescription stimulants." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 16 Apr. 2018
  12. Lipari, Rachel N. “Understanding Adolescent Inhalant Use.” The CBHSQ Report, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US), 12 Jun. 2017.pp. 1–7.
  13. Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
  14. Nutt, David et al. “Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse.” Lancet (London, England) vol. 369,9566 : 1047-53

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