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The Most Commonly Abused Drugs

Last Updated: November 10, 2022

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The United States is in the middle of an addiction crisis that spans from sea to shining sea. Nearly 21 million American adults had a substance use problem in 2015 alone, with numbers continuing to climb in recent years. Ohio is no exception to this dangerous trend. The state is one of the hardest hit by substance use, particularly in regards to opioid addiction.


When it comes to substance use in the United States, alcohol is by and large the worst offender, with 17.3 million heavy alcohol users recorded in 2015 alone. According to Kana Enomoto, the principal deputy administrator of SAMHSA, 3 out of every 4 cases of substance use disorders in the U.S. involve alcohol.

Because alcohol is a legal — and socially acceptable — substance, many people feel a false sense of security when using it. However, it’s important to keep in mind that alcohol is extremely addictive, and irresponsible consumption comes with physical and mental health consequences. Some of the short-term, negative effects of alcohol use include: 

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Distorted vision and hearing
  • Impaired judgement
  • Blackouts

These side effects don’t just impact the people consuming alcohol — they can also put other lives in danger, especially if users drive while under the influence. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drunk-driving crashes accounted for nearly one-third of all traffic-related deaths in the United States in 2015.

When alcohol is consumed in excess over long periods of time, addiction becomes more and more likely. This can lead to a host of additional health complications, including:

  • Unintentional injury
  • Stroke, high blood pressure or other heart-related conditions
  • Liver disease
  • Nerve damage
  • Permanent brain damage
  • Gastritis
  • Cancer of the mouth and throat
  • Overdose


Rates of marijuana use have increased sharply in recent years as the drug is legalized for recreational and medicinal purposes in several states. More people reported consuming marijuana in 2015 than during any single year between 2002 and 2013. While marijuana use is slowly becoming more accepted, it’s important to keep in mind the possible mental and physical consequences of frequent, heavy use. Of the 22.2 million Americans who were current users of marijuana in 2015, 4 million had a marijuana use disorder.

While conventional forms of marijuana are hazardous and potentially addictive, a new and particularly dangerous form of the drug has recently entered into common circulation — edibles. From gummy bears to brownies, these seemingly innocuous concoctions pose a broad range of risks that smokable varieties don’t. While the high from smoking marijuana lasts about two hours, a high from edibles may last anywhere from six to 10 hours. When taken in large doses, edibles can cause:

  • Anxiety attacks
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Respiratory insufficiency, especially in young children

Prescription Opioids

Opioids are a family of drugs that produce sedative, pain-relieving effects. While street varieties like heroinfentanyl and gray death are becoming more common, prescription counterparts like oxycodonehydrocodone and morphine are more widely abused. Most people start taking these drugs after they are prescribed for an injury or chronic pain. Unfortunately, what often starts as the safe, responsible use of a prescription medication can quickly turn into a full-fledged addiction if a person takes more medication than prescribed over an extended period of time. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 3.8 million people in the United States abuse prescription pain relievers.

Ohio is at the center of the country’s opioid epidemic, likely due to high rates of prescription drug use in the state. In 2016 alone, 631 million opioid pills were prescribed in Ohio. While these drugs may be a useful way for some to deal with pain in the short-term, long-term abuse and dependence can lead to:

  • Chronic nausea
  • Constipation
  • Liver damage
  • Permanent brain damage
  • Overdose


In 2015, an estimated 1.9 million individuals over the age of 12 were current users of cocaine, one of the most addictive drugs in the world. Usually available as a white powder or solidified, rock-like substance, cocaine can be snorted, smoked and injected. Once ingested, this substance stimulates the user’s brain, causing them to experience a rush of euphoria and energy. These feelings may also be accompanied by elevated mood and an inflated, grandiose sense of self-esteem. Once the high subsides, users may experience an unpleasant crash, often accompanied by the following side effects:

  • Tremors
  • Paranoia
  • Vertigo
  • Increased heart rate
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Raised body temperature  

Even short-term use of cocaine is dangerous because of the drug’s highly addictive nature. What began as experimentation can quickly spiral into addiction and or overdose. Cocaine overdose can result in cardiac arrest, respiratory arrest, stroke or even death. In 2011 alone, more than 4,500 people died from cocaine overdose.

Prescription Tranquilizers

Also known as minor tranquilizers, prescription tranquilizers are part of a broad class of drugs that induce relaxation and calm a person’s mental state. These include anxiety medications like Valium and Xanax and sleeping pills like Ambien and Sonata. While prescription tranquilizers are helpful for some, they can cause a great deal of mental and physical problems when taken over long periods of time, including addiction. Currently, 1.9 million people in the United States abuse prescription tranquilizers.

Prolonged use of prescription tranquilizers can cause:

  • Memory loss
  • Loss of balance
  • Dizziness
  • Cognitive decline
  • Addiction
  • Overdose

While prolonged use is ill-advised, many people choose to use prescription tranquilizers daily for sleep or anxiety problems. When these drugs are used regularly, a person may knowingly or unintentionally take them with alcohol or other substance. This puts dramatically heightens the risk of overdose, permanent damage, or death.


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