Top 10 Most Commonly Abused Drugs and Their Effects

Update: the content in this blog has been modified as of January 2014 to reflect the most recent national survey.*

Although it is impossible to measure the extent of drug use, drug use is everywhere. From bathrooms and refrigerators to cars and street corners, alcohol and drug use touch every part of our culture. Recent national data* from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides a reliable estimate of which drugs people are using the most.

With over half (52.5%) of U.S. population identified as drinkers, alcohol is the #1 abused substance in America. An estimated 135.5 million people drink alcohol, but of those people, 86 million are considered to be abusers, which include heavy drinking, binge drinking and underage drinking. Twenty-three percent of the population participates in binge drinking (59.7 million) and 6.5% of the population reported heavy drinking (17.0 million).  An estimated 81.4% of people who drank alcohol for the first time were younger than age 21 at the time they started drinking, and 9.3 million underage people aged 12 to 20 were current drinkers.

Learn about the Facts & Effects of Alcohol→

In 2012, an estimated 69.5 million Americans over age 12 were current users of a tobacco product. Across age groups, current cigarette use was highest among people aged 21 to 25. Among youths aged 12 to 17 who smoked cigarettes in the past month, over half (54.6) percent also used an illicit drug, compared with 6.4 percent of youths who did not smoke cigarettes.

Learn about the Facts & Effects of Tobacco→

In 2012, marijuana was the most commonly used federally illicit drug, with 18.9 million users, although several states have already legalized it. Seventy-nine percent of all current illicit drug users use marijuana, and marijuana remains the most popular illicit drug among high school students. Of the 7.3 million persons classified with illicit drug dependence or abuse, over half (4.3 million) had marijuana dependence or abuse.

Learn about the Facts & Effects of Marijuana→

In 2012, 2.4 million people used prescription drugs non-medically for the first time within the past year—nearly 6,700 initiates per day. Painkillers containing hydrocodone, such as Vicodin, and painkillers containing oxycodone, such as Percocet  and Oxycontin, are the top most abused medicines in the United States.

Learn about the Facts & Effects of Prescription Painkillers→

Sedatives like benzodiazepines and tranquilizers like barbiturates are central nervous system depressants that work similarly to alcohol. Benzodiazepines such as Lorazepam (Ativan) and Alprazolam (Xanax) are the most commonly prescribed depressants. In 2012, the vast majority (i.e. 2.1 million) of the 2.4 million users came from nonmedical users of benzodiazepines.

Learn about the Facts & Effects of Benzodiazepines→

Nearly 1.6 million people in America are current users of this powerful central nervous stimulant and 1.1 million are dependent on cocaine.  In 2012, there were 639,000 persons aged 12 or older who had used cocaine for the first time, approximately 1,800 initiates per day.  Although the estimates are slightly higher than the number and rate in 2011, they were lower than in 2003 to 2007.

Learn about the Facts & Effects of Cocaine→

Stimulant prescription drugs such as Ritalin and Aderall are typically prescribed for ADHD  and narcolepsy.  Since they are made from powerful stimulants like amphetamine (Dexedrine and Adderall) or methlphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta), prescription stimulants have a high potential for abuse. With 1.2 million current nonmedical users in 2012, prescription stimulants are now the third most abused class of prescription drugs in the nation.

Learn about the Facts and Effects of Prescription Stimulants→

Hallucinogen drugs include LSD, PCP, peyote, mescaline, psilocybin mushrooms, and Ecstasy (MDMA).  In 2012, there were 1.1 million people who used hallucinogens. Ecstasy, LSD, and PCP were the most popular hallucinogens respectively, with 869,000 first time users of Ecstasy,  421,000 for LSD and 90,000 for PCP in the past year.

Learn about the Facts and Effects of Ecstasy and Hallucinogens

Heroin use, the King of Narcotics and the most addictive substance in the world, has increased to 669,000 users in 2012. About 335,000 people used heroin in the month prior to the survey, and about 267,000 users were dependent on heroin, which is approximately twice the number in 2002 (214,000).

Learn about the Facts and Effects of Heroin→

Methamphetamine is a powerful and highly addictive stimulant drug with a high that can last 40 times longer than the effects of cocaine. With the average first time meth user being 19 years old, meth is most pervasive among young adults. About 133,000 people used methamphetamine for the first time in 2012.  About 440,000 people are current users of methamphetamine, which is a significant decrease from 2006.

Learn about the Facts and Effects of Methamphetamine→


The rate of drug abuse is constantly changing; the numbers are never static. Thousands of people abuse drugs every day, but thousands of people are recovering as well.

In the past year, four million people received treatment for a problem related to the use of alcohol or illicit drugs. Although addiction is a powerful disease, treatment does work and recovery is possible.

About Duffy's

Located in Napa Valley, California, Duffy’s Rehab is a premier treatment facility in Northern California dedicated to helping others find freedom from addiction and drug abuse. Since our founding in 1968, we have helped over 36,000 guests find hope and recovery, and we would count it a privilege to help you.

If you have any questions about drug addiction or treatment, please call us today (1.888.717.9724).

*This list is based on the most recent data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health Summary of National Findings. Although it has its limitations, this survey is the primary source of statistical information on the use of illicit drugs, alcohol, and tobacco of US noninstitutionalized civilians over age 12.

Guest Blog Author

This post is part of our guest-blog post series. We welcome all stories of recovery and addiction.