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Drug and Substance Abuse

Medically reviewed by Leigh Ann Anderson, PharmD. Last updated on July 31, 2020.

Drug abuse: a national epidemic

The abuse of drugs or other substances, whether they are illegal drugs or prescription opioid drug, alcohol, or tobacco is one of the nation's most pressing public health issues.

Drug abuse occurs when people willingly consume illegal substances or legal, prescription drugs for the purpose of altering their mood, or getting “high”. Regular drug abuse may lead to drug addiction or other bodily harm. Drug abuse usually involves selling, buying or abusing these substances, which can lead to arrest, criminal charges, and imprisonment.

The term “drug abuse” is often associated with illegal drugs such as cocaine, heroin, or marijuana. More recently, dangerous designer drugs such as bath salts or club drugs such as ecstasy have become increasingly popular. And even legal substances such as tobacco and alcohol are linked with dangerous abuse.

  • Designer drugs are synthetic chemicals altered in often unknown ways to produce substances that may be more potent, and frequently more dangerous. Designer drugs may resemble the effects of other illegal drugs, because the chemical formula of a designer drug is manipulated, they often cannot be classified as illegal until state or federal regulations are changed.
  • Club drugs might be used by youth in all-night “rave” or dance parties, at bars and at concerts for their psychoactive effects.
  • Alcohol and tobacco
  • Prescription opioids

Abused substances are not always illegal

Drug abuse can also occur with legal prescription drugs used in illegal ways, as is seen with the ongoing opioid epidemic. The levels of prescription narcotic abuse in the U.S. surpasses the abuse of many illegal drugs. The unlawful use of steroids as performance enhancing drugs like anabolic steroids seen in college-level, Olympic and professional sports has resulted in a unique set of international anti-doping standards.

Alcohol and cigarette tobacco (nicotine) use, although declining in teenagers, remains as some of the most abused substances in the U.S.

are the ultimate outcomes of many of the legal substances that are frequently illegally abused in the nation.

Overview of drugs of abuse

The following documents detail common drugs or other substances of abuse. Sections may include: descriptions, extent and methods of abuse, typical user experience, health and pregnancy hazards, addiction treatment options.


Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.