A List of the Most Addictive Drugs

drugs abuseDrug addictions are insidious disorders that rarely announce their presence with a trumpet blast or a flash of light. Instead, they tend to develop in very small, incremental steps that are easy to ignore. At first, the person is simply experimenting with drugs and feeling sensations that are somehow unusual or pleasurable. Then, brain cell damage begins to accrue, and those small injuries drive a person back to the use and abuse of the drug. In time, the person is physically unable to kick the habit without some sort of physical or mental distress. Some people never do recover, as they simply can’t imagine a life that doesn’t include drugs.

Any pleasurable substance could cause this kind of transformation; however, there are some drugs that experts consider particularly dangerous. These are just 10 of the substances experts suggest are closely related to addiction.


1. Crack Cocaine

Cocaine This smokable drug is far from subtle. Mere moments after using the substance, users report a wave of pleasurable sensations that leave their nerve endings thrumming. Just as suddenly, however, the drug wears off, and users are left in a pit of despair. This rapid onset and sudden decay is what makes crack cocaine so very addictive, according to experts at the Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR), and it’s not uncommon for users to develop an addiction during their very first session of use. They’re desperate to regain the high, so they follow one hit with another, and then chase that hit with another, until they’ve done a significant amount of damage to their brain cells in no time at all. The rapid onset, when paired with a user’s tendency to binge during use, merits this drug the top spot, in terms of addictability.

2. Heroin

Heroin Heroin can be smoked or snorted, but users typically heat up the substance and inject the liquid directly into their veins, as this method provides the quickest path to euphoria. Unfortunately, this method is also dangerous, in terms of addiction, and it allows this drug to rise to the top of the list of addictive substances.

Just like crack cocaine, heroin attaches to brain receptors and triggers the release of very potent chemicals associated with pleasure. That rush is followed by a period of profound sedation, in which the user drifts in and out of consciousness. This sleepy state can keep users from binging, but it doesn’t seem to protect them from addiction, as the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) suggests that 23 percent of people who use heroin become dependent on the substance.

The remarkable sensations heroin can deliver are, in part, responsible for heroin’s addictive nature. But the drug can also cause profound changes in the way the brain functions. In time, with repeated use, people may be physically incapable of experiencing joy without the use of heroin. Without the drug, they may even feel physically ill.

This withdrawal syndrome can make heroin’s addiction remarkably persistent. People who have the addiction just don’t feel capable of kicking the habit, much as they might try to do so. They feel ill, and they crave heroin. This terrible withdrawal syndrome merits a high placement for heroin, in terms of addiction.

3. Nicotine

Addictions are sometimes defined in terms of the withdrawal symptoms people face when they attempt to quit. In this regard, nicotine is highly addictive, as withdrawal symptoms of nicotine use begin rather quickly after the last use – usually within two to three hours. Common symptoms include:

  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating

Nicotine might also merit a high placement on the addictiveness list, as users seem unable to quit. According to the NIDA, more than 85 percent of people who try to quit using this substance relapse to use, typically within one week. People who abuse nicotine also tend to augment their use on a regular basis, moving from smoking just one cigarette to two and then a pack. Chasing a high like this is a hallmark of addiction, and it helps to boost the placement of nicotine on this list.

4. Alcohol

Alcohol It’s easy to forget that alcohol is a drug, and a powerful one at that, because it’s legal for almost everyone to use in almost every state. But it’s this accessibility that might make alcohol so very addictive. Unlike other substances of abuse, which users might need to buy and ingest in private, alcohol can be purchased and used right out in the open. Even developing a dependence on alcohol might not seem problematic, as the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism suggests that 8.5 percent of American adults meet the diagnostic criteria for an alcohol abuse issue. Only 2 percent meet the criteria for a drug abuse issue, however. If alcohol is so accepted, developing an addiction might be relatively easy, and placement high on an addictiveness list seems appropriate as a result.

Alcohol can also leave its mark on the cells of the brain, and the changes can force users back to drinking, even when they want to stop. Withdrawal symptoms attributed to alcohol can be so severe, in fact, that some people lose their lives in a quest to get sober. Alcoholics might never try to get well, after facing just one of these episodes, and that’s just part of what makes this drug so dangerous.

5. Methamphetamine

Crystal MethMethamphetamine is a highly addictive psychostimulant that is sold as crystal meth for injection and “ice” or “glass” for smoking. Long-term meth abuse can lead to psychotic episodes, violent behavior, memory loss, mood swings and heartbeat irregularities. Much of this is known to the average viewer of Breaking Bad, but these viewers might not know what happens to the brain when meth is involved.

According to research cited by PBS, a dose of meth provides a rush of pleasurable signals that just aren’t available during a standard set of experiences. A person enjoying a great meal might have a spike of 350 units of chemical pleasure signals. Taking meth, on the other hand, results in a spike of 1,250 units.

Big, fast changes are almost always associated with addiction, and since meth causes this kind of change, it merits placement on the list of addictive drugs. The drug might not move to the top of the list, however, as users might be so impaired while under the influence (“tweaking”) that they’re unable to take more meth. This protects them from further damage, and it might delay the onset of addiction, but the chemical surge might allow an addiction to form in time.

6. Prescription Painkillers

painkillersStreet drugs like heroin or meth are often terrifying to families, in terms of addiction, but some drugs that come from pharmacies also have the capacity to cause serious harm. Prescription painkillers, for example, have been associated with very serious cases of addiction.

Of those painkillers, OxyContin might be the most notorious. This medication has a single ingredient, oxycodone, and it’s prescribed for moderate to severe pain. This ingredient can also cause euphoria, however, and it can cause the same types of brain changes seen in people who take heroin.

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Euphoria and brain changes might seem, on the surface, to merit a higher placement of painkillers on the list of addictive substances. However, research suggests that not everyone who uses these drugs develops an addiction. In fact, these drugs are generally safe when used for a short period of time as directed by a doctor. It’s when users get creative that the danger begins.

In a study of the issue, in the Journal of Addictive Diseases, researchers found that people addicted to OxyContin tended to move from taking the pills by mouth to crushing the pills and snorting or injecting the powder. This alternative form of drug use allows active ingredients to hit the brain rapidly, and again, this speed is associated with addiction. Users who take this step are on the road to developing a serious, and chronic, problem.

7. Prescription Amphetamines

Amphetamines AddictionPrescription medications like Ritalin can be a lifesaver for people who have attention deficit disorders, but as an article in The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry points out, the drug works on the same chemical pathways used by cocaine. If users take in the drugs orally, the researchers point out, the addictiveness level of the drug is reduced, as the substances take longer to reach the brain. But those who crush and snort the pills can feel changes in as little as 4 minutes, and those people might quickly develop an addiction.

Since these drugs can be addictive, they merit placement on this list. But since amphetamine is only really addictive when it’s snorted, a low placement does seem appropriate.

8. Marijuana

Many people who abuse marijuana claim, quite vehemently, that the substance isn’t addictive and that they can stop their use anytime they’d like to do so. The NIDA disagrees, however, and suggests that about 9 percent of people who abuse marijuana become dependent on the substance. That risk rises yet higher, however, if people begin using marijuana on a compulsive basis when they’re in their teens.

Marijuana might also be considered addictive due to the withdrawal symptoms people report when they try to quit, which might include:

  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Aggression
  • Cravings

These two factors put together clearly demonstrate that marijuana can be addictive, but since the percentage of people who develop an addiction is relatively low, it’s best to place this drug low on an addictiveness scale.

9. Benzodiazepines

benzodiazepine abusePrescription drugs in this class include Valium, Xanax, Klonopin and Ativan. They are prescribed for a variety of conditions, including anxiety and insomnia, and many people are able to use the medications properly without developing any kind of addiction or abuse problem. Unfortunately, the drugs also have the capacity to cause a spike in the uptake or production of chemicals associated with pleasure, and as a result, they’re generally considered addictive.

Unlike other drugs that might be considered addictive on their own, benzodiazepines seem to fit a multi-drug profile. People who abuse this class of medication tend to combine their pills with other substances, including alcohol and opiates. In a study in American Family Physician, researchers found that about 80 percent of people who abuse these drugs also abuse some other drug. Benzodiazepines do seem to be addictive, but those addictions seem to spring up when other addictions are already in play. The low placement on this list reflects that fact.

10. Caffeine

caffeineIn top 10 lists of addictive drugs, caffeine often tops the list. Writers often cite studies, like this one, that demonstrate that users experience a variety of negative symptoms when they attempt to stop downing beverages loaded with caffeine, and since those symptoms can be absolutely paralyzing, it’s assumed that users will relapse to use to make the pain go away, and that an addiction is to blame.

However, a more nuanced reading seems to suggest that caffeine isn’t addictive for all users. As an article in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse points out, caffeine users don’t tend to demonstrate the other hallmarks of addiction. They don’t augment their use with higher and higher doses of caffeine, and they don’t tend to put the use and abuse of the drug above all else that’s important in life. In short, they use it and they might have a physical need for it, but most users don’t develop a psychological dependence on the substance. This means it’s not really as addictive as other drugs. Low placement seems appropriate, as a result.


Treatment for Addictive Drugs

Treatment options for highly addictive drugs include a supervised detox, along with a program that includes behavioral therapies and counseling. This is the kind of help we can provide you at Alta Mira.

No matter what substance has caused you distress, we can help. We offer a wide range of services to give you the support and confidence to make the transition from a life controlled by drugs to a life of purpose. Our professional staff is fully qualified to see you through all the way from detox to living sober. Call today and start on the road to recovery and a life of sobriety.