The Most Commonly Used Drugs: Navigating the World of Substance Use

Discover the most commonly used drugs, their effects, and societal impacts. Dive into the world of substance use today!

Leora BH Staff
March 15, 2024

The Most Commonly Used Drugs

Understanding the landscape of drug use is essential in addressing substance abuse issues. This section provides an overview of drug use statistics and examines the prevalence of drug use among college students.

Overview of Drug Use Statistics

Among the most commonly used drugs, certain substances stand out in terms of prevalence and impact. According to the American Addiction Centers, the following drugs are frequently used:

Drug Description

  • Marijuana: A psychoactive drug derived from the Cannabis plant.
  • Prescription Drugs: Medications prescribed by doctors for various conditions.
  • Ecstasy: A synthetic drug with stimulant and hallucinogenic effects.
  • Cocaine: A powerful stimulant derived from the coca plant.
  • Inhalants: Chemical substances inhaled to produce mind-altering effects.
  • Hallucinogens: Drugs that cause hallucinations and alter perception.
  • Methamphetamine: A highly addictive stimulant drug.
  • Heroin: An illegal opioid drug derived from morphine.

College Students and Drug Use

Drug use among college students has been a concern for many years. Research conducted by the NCBI indicates that male college students are generally more likely to report drug use and abuse compared to their female counterparts. Additionally, there are differences in drug use patterns among different racial and ethnic groups. Prior to and during college, Hispanic and White students tend to report higher drug use rates compared to Asian and African American students.

According to the NCBI, young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 have the highest rates of lifetime, past-year, and past-month illicit drug use. In a 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 60.5% of young adults in this age group reported lifetime drug use, with 34.6% reporting use within the past year, and 20.3% reporting use within the past month. Moreover, the survey revealed variations in drug use rates among different racial and ethnic groups. In the same age group, White young adults reported the highest rates of past-year illicit drug use (38.2%), followed by African American (30.6%) and Hispanic (27.5%) young adults.

By understanding the prevalence of drug use, particularly among college students, society can better tailor prevention and intervention strategies to address substance abuse issues effectively. Education, awareness, and support systems play crucial roles in mitigating the risks associated with drug use and promoting healthier lifestyles.

Illicit Drugs

Among the various substances that are commonly used, several fall under the category of illicit drugs. These substances are typically illegal to possess, produce, or distribute. In this section, we will explore some of the most commonly used illicit drugs, including marijuana, prescription drugs, ecstasy, cocaine, inhalants, hallucinogens, methamphetamine, and heroin.


Marijuana is one of the most widely used illicit drugs globally and is also the most commonly used illicit substance in the United States. It is derived from the hemp plant, Cannabis sativa, with the main psychoactive chemical being delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) [2]. Marijuana is typically smoked, vaporized, or ingested orally. Its effects can include relaxation, euphoria, altered perception of time, and increased appetite.

Prescription Drugs

While not typically thought of as illicit drugs, prescription drugs can be misused and abused, leading to various health complications and addiction. In the United States alone, 52 million people have used prescription drugs non-medically in their lifetime. The most commonly abused prescription drugs include opioids, central nervous system depressants, and stimulants. These medications are often obtained without a legitimate prescription and can have serious consequences when misused.


Ecstasy, also known as MDMA or Molly, is a synthetic psychoactive drug that produces feelings of increased energy, euphoria, and emotional warmth. It is commonly associated with party and club scenes. Ecstasy is usually taken orally in pill or capsule form. However, it is important to note that the purity and composition of ecstasy can vary significantly, which increases the risk of adverse effects.


Cocaine is a powerful stimulant made from the leaves of the coca plant, which is native to South America. It is typically sold as a white powder and can be snorted, smoked, or dissolved in water and injected. Cocaine produces intense feelings of euphoria, increased energy, and heightened alertness. However, it also carries a high risk of addiction and can have severe health effects.


Inhalants encompass a wide range of substances that are typically inhaled or sniffed to produce mind-altering effects. These substances include household solvents, aerosol sprays, paint thinners, and even gasoline. Inhalant abuse can lead to a rapid high but also carries significant health risks, including damage to the brain, liver, kidneys, and other organs.


Hallucinogens are drugs that cause profound distortions in a person's perceptions of reality. Some commonly used hallucinogens include ketamine, LSD, mescaline, PCP, psilocybin (found in certain mushrooms), salvia, and ayahuasca [2]. These substances can induce hallucinations, altered states of consciousness, and profound changes in sensory perception.


Methamphetamine, commonly known as meth, is a highly addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system. It can be taken orally, snorted, smoked, or injected. Methamphetamine increases dopamine levels in the brain, leading to intense euphoria, increased energy, and a sense of well-being. However, repeated use can have devastating effects on physical and mental health.


Heroin is a potent opioid drug made from morphine extracted from opium poppy plants. It is typically sold as a white or brown powder, or as a sticky black substance known as black tar heroin. Heroin can be snorted, smoked, or injected. It rapidly enters the brain and binds to opioid receptors, leading to a surge of euphoria and relaxation. However, heroin use carries a high risk of addiction, overdose, and other serious health consequences.

Understanding the various illicit drugs is essential for recognizing the risks associated with their use. It is important to prioritize education, prevention, and access to treatment to address the challenges posed by these substances.

Understanding Drug Categories

To gain a comprehensive understanding of commonly used drugs, it is essential to explore different drug categories. These categories help classify drugs based on their effects on the body and the central nervous system. In this section, we will delve into three major drug categories: opioids, central nervous system depressants, and stimulants.


Opioids are a class of drugs that include both illegal substances like heroin and prescription medications such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and fentanyl. These drugs are commonly used for pain relief due to their ability to bind to opioid receptors in the brain, blocking pain signals and producing feelings of euphoria.

Opioids can be highly addictive, and their misuse has become a significant public health concern. In the United States, prescription opioids have been a significant contributor to the increase in overdose deaths. Globally, an estimated 12-21 million people use opioids, including heroin and prescription painkillers.

Central Nervous System Depressants

Central nervous system depressants, also known as sedatives or tranquilizers, are medications that slow down brain activity. They are primarily prescribed to treat anxiety, sleep disorders, and seizures. Common examples of central nervous system depressants include benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and sleep medications like zolpidem and eszopiclone.

While these medications can be beneficial when used as prescribed, they also pose risks when misused or combined with other substances. Misuse of central nervous system depressants can lead to addiction, respiratory depression, memory problems, and even overdose. It is crucial to use these medications under the guidance of a healthcare professional to minimize these risks.


Stimulants are substances that increase alertness, attention, and energy levels. They enhance brain activity by increasing the release of certain chemicals such as dopamine and norepinephrine. Commonly used stimulants include cocaine, amphetamines, and prescription medications like Adderall and Ritalin.

Cocaine, derived from the leaves of the coca plant native to South America, is a highly addictive stimulant. It produces intense euphoria and increases energy levels. However, it also carries significant health risks, including cardiovascular problems, stroke, and addiction.

Prescription stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin are commonly prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). When used as prescribed, these medications can be safe and effective. However, misuse or non-medical use of prescription stimulants can lead to serious health consequences, including heart problems, addiction, and psychiatric issues.

Understanding these drug categories provides insight into the effects, risks, and potential consequences associated with commonly used drugs. It is important to approach these substances with caution and to seek professional guidance when using medications that fall into these categories.

Patterns and Trends

When examining drug use, it is important to explore the patterns and trends associated with drug consumption. This section focuses on drug use by demographics and provides an overview of worldwide drug use statistics.

Drug Use by Demographics

Drug use varies across different demographic groups, with certain factors influencing usage rates. According to the 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, young adults aged 18 to 25 years report the highest rates of drug use. In this age group, 60.5% reported lifetime drug use, 34.6% reported past-year use, and 20.3% reported past-month use of any illicit drug. Additionally, male college students were generally more likely to report drug use and abuse compared to their female counterparts, and Hispanic and White students had higher rates of drug use compared to Asian and African American students.

It is worth noting that several college-based national studies have reported higher rates of marijuana use among college men than women. These variations in drug use by demographics highlight the need for targeted prevention and intervention strategies to address the specific needs of different groups.

Worldwide Drug Use Statistics

Drug use is a global issue, and understanding the scope of the problem is crucial. The most commonly used drugs worldwide are cannabis, amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), cocaine, and opioids. Cannabis remains the most widely used drug, with an estimated 125-203 million users worldwide UNODC.

The use of opioids, including prescription painkillers and heroin, poses a significant global concern. Recent estimates indicate that there are 53 million users of opioids annually, with 585,000 drug-related deaths reported each year, two-thirds of which are due to opioids. It is important to address the factors contributing to the opioid crisis and implement effective prevention, treatment, and harm reduction strategies.

Drug-related deaths and substance abuse rates vary across different countries. Wide intra-national variations in drug death rates have been observed in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, where drug deaths have risen in recent years. Area characteristics, including social status, social cohesion, segregation, urbanicity, and drug supply, play a significant role in explaining these differences. Factors such as unemployment, poverty, income segregation, and racial segregation have also been identified as possible contributors to drug-related deaths.

Understanding drug use patterns and worldwide statistics helps shape effective policies, interventions, and public health strategies. By addressing the unique challenges faced by different demographic groups and considering the global landscape of drug use, we can work towards reducing drug-related harm and promoting healthier communities.

Consequences and Impacts

Exploring the world of substance use involves understanding not only the most commonly used drugs but also the consequences and impacts associated with their use. This section will delve into the health effects of drug use, drug-related deaths, and the social and economic impacts that arise from substance abuse.

Health Effects of Drug Use

The use of drugs can have significant health consequences, impacting both the short-term and long-term well-being of individuals. The specific health effects vary depending on the drug used and the frequency and quantity of consumption. Some common health effects associated with drug use include:

  • Physical health problems such as cardiovascular issues, respiratory disorders, liver damage, and compromised immune systems.
  • Mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, psychosis, and cognitive impairments.
  • Increased risk of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, particularly among individuals who inject drugs.
  • Developmental issues in unborn children when drugs are used during pregnancy.

It is important to note that the health effects of drug use can be severe and, in some cases, irreversible. Seeking professional help and support is crucial for individuals struggling with substance abuse.

Drug-Related Deaths

Drug-related deaths have become a significant concern in many parts of the world, particularly due to the rise in opioid use and misuse. Prescription drugs, specifically opioids, have been a major contributor to the increase in overdose deaths in the United States. Additionally, heroin, a potent opioid drug, has been a major public health concern, contributing significantly to the opioid crisis in the United States [1].

Drug death rates and substance abuse vary considerably across different countries and even within nations. Factors such as social status, social cohesion, segregation, urbanicity, and drug supply play significant roles in explaining differences in drug-related deaths. Unemployment, poverty, income segregation, and racial segregation have also been identified as possible contributors to drug-related deaths.

Social and Economic Impacts

Substance abuse has wide-ranging social and economic consequences that affect individuals, families, communities, and societies as a whole. Some key impacts include:

  • Strained relationships and breakdown of family units due to the effects of addiction.
  • Increased crime rates and involvement in illegal activities to support drug habits.
  • Financial burdens resulting from the costs of drug acquisition and potential legal consequences.
  • Loss of productivity and decreased work performance, leading to economic repercussions.
  • Burden on healthcare systems due to the need for drug treatment and rehabilitation services.

Understanding the consequences and impacts of drug use is essential for raising awareness, developing effective prevention strategies, and providing support to individuals struggling with substance abuse. By addressing these issues comprehensively, societies can work towards creating a healthier and safer environment for everyone.


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