Skip to Content

Drug and Substance Abuse

Medically reviewed on Nov 28, 2016 by L. Anderson, PharmD.

Drug and Substance Abuse

The abuse of drugs or other substances, whether they are illegal drugs or prescription drugs, 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.

  • 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 are used by youth in all-night “rave” or dance parties, at bars and at concerts for their psychoactive effects.

Recent surveys have reported that the rates of alcohol and tobacco use by the nation’s youth are declining; however, the use of illicit drugs by America’s teenagers continues to be the highest of any country in the world.

Abused substances are not always illegal

Drug abuse can also occur with legal prescription drugs used in illegal ways. 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, 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. Alcoholism, chronic liver disease, emphysema, lung cancers and death are the ultimate outcome of many of the legal substances that are frequently abused in the nation.

Drugs and substances commonly abused

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