Drug and Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

Substance abuse is a widespread problem in the United States that has many serious health and social consequences.1 Substance abuse is not limited to the use of illegal drugs like heroin but may include the misuse and abuse of legal substances such as alcohol or prescription medications.2

This page will give a general overview of common drugs of abuse and their effects, signs of drug misuse and addiction, and drug rehabilitation treatment.

Did you know health insurance plans cover treatment for alcoholism and addiction?
Drugs of Abuse

Common Types of Drugs Which Are Abused

There are several major classes of drugs that get misused/abused. While the drugs discussed below do not represent an exhaustive list of all drugs of abuse, these are some of the most common.


While legal for adults 21 and over, alcohol is a very commonly abused drug with a large range of negative health implications. According to the World Health Organization, alcohol use contributes to over 200 diseases and injury-related conditions.3 In fact, over 5% of the global burden of disease and injury is attributable to alcohol.3

An overdose on alcohol—alcohol poisoning—can cause the suppression of life-sustaining functions such as breathing and may result in death.4


Marijuana is one of the most widely used drugs in the U.S.5 Marijuana/cannabis products are used in many forms:6

  • Rolled up in a cigarette (joint).
  • Smoked in a pipe or bong.
  • Consumed as an “edible”.
  • Heated for vaping or “dabbing.”

Marijuana concentrates have become increasingly popular over the years. These extracts can be very dangerous to users, as they are extremely high in THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.5

Synthetic cannabinoids, commonly referred to as K2 or “Spice,” are manmade psychoactive chemicals sprayed on dried plant leaves or sold in liquid form to be vaporized and smoked. The chemicals are similar to those found in marijuana. Despite misleading advertising that makes K2/Spice appear like a safer, alternative form of marijuana, synthetic cannabinoids are not marijuana; their effects can be powerful, unpredictable, and much more dangerous—even deadly—for users.7


Opioids bind to and activate opioid receptors in the brain and body, reducing pain sensations and producing a relaxing, sometimes euphoric effect. The larger class of opioids includes both prescription painkillers and illegal narcotics.6

All opioids, even those obtained by prescription, are addictive and dangerous when misused. Overdosing on opioids can lead to severely slowed breathing that has the potential to result in permanent brain damage or even death.8

Common opioids include:6,8


Stimulants are drugs that accelerate the activity of the central and sympathetic nervous systems, raising alertness, wakefulness, and energy.6,9 Like opioids, this class of drugs includes both prescription medications and illegal substances.

Commonly used and abused stimulants include:6


In contrast to stimulant drugs, CNS depressants inhibit or slow certain types of brain signaling and connected physiological processes.6 This results in effects including sedation and anxiety relief. Depressants can slow the breathing, and it is very dangerous to combine these drugs with opioids or alcohol, other substances that have a similar effect on respiration.6

Depressants include both prescription and illegal drugs such as:6

  • Benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax, Valium, etc.)
  • Barbiturates (e.g., phenobarbital).
  • Sedative-hypnotics (Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata).
  • Rohypnol (“roofies”), a benzodiazepine and known “date rape drug” that is illegal in the U.S.
  • Gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid (GHB), an illegal drug of abuse also sometimes used to facilitate date rape.


Hallucinogens are often misused because of the way they alter a person’s perception and senses, distort thoughts, and impact mood.6 The hallucinogen class of drugs contains a broad range of substances, including:

Dissociative Drugs

Dissociative drugs are sometimes grouped under the larger class of hallucinogens, because of some overlap in their effects. Though their pharmacologic effects differ, they can also produce both perceptual distortions and hallucinations; however, unlike the hallucinogens listed above, dissociative drugs can also make the user feel dissociated, or separate, from their body and from reality.6,10

Dissociative hallucinogens include:10


U.S. Drug Abuse Statistics

According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH):11

  • More than 138 million Americans 12 years old or older have misused drugs at some point in their lifetime.
  • Marijuana is the most commonly abused drug, with more than 48 million Americans over 12 years old having misused it within the past year.
  • Prescription drugs are the second most abused category of drugs, with just over 16 million Americans misusing them within the past year—more than half of these being abuse of prescription painkillers.
  • Prescription stimulants and tranquilizers/sedatives are common drugs of abuse, with nearly 5 million and 6 million Americans, respectively, misusing them within the past year.
  • About 41.5 million Americans have used cocaine within their lifetime.
  • More than 44 million Americans have tried hallucinogens at least once.
  • More than 10 million Americans abused opioids in the past year.
  • Nearly 66 million Americans engaged in binge drinking in the month prior to the survey.
  • Drug misuse is most common among Americans between 21 and 25 years old, with an estimated 40.6% of people within this age group misusing drugs within the past year.
  • Around 20.4 million Americans over 12 years old have substance use disorders (SUDs). However, only about 1.6 million of those people received any treatment for addiction.

Opioids continue to be a major national concern. Of the 70,630 drug overdoses in 2019 in the United States, more than 70% involved an opioid.12

Signs & Symptoms

Warning Signs of Drug Abuse 

Anxious woman

It is not always obvious when someone has been misusing drugs. Some of the outward signs might be somewhat subtle and/or not specific to just substance use. However, there are many potential signs and symptoms of drug abuse that you can watch for if you’ve become concerned about someone you know. These include:2,13

  • Bloodshot eyes, or pupils that are noticeably large or small.
  • Behaving suspiciously or secretively.
  • Changing friends, hobbies, or hangouts.
  • Having an odd or inconsistent sleep schedule.
  • Changes in grooming/hygiene.
  • Losing interest in things and activities they once enjoyed.
  • Abrupt changes in mood or personality.
  • Seeming unusually energetic, talking fast, and saying nonsensical things.
  • Acting anxious or paranoid without cause.
  • Stumbling or falling over.
  • Having problems fulfilling work, school, or familial obligations.
  • Getting into legal trouble related to drug use.

Warning Signs of Addiction

While misusing drugs is always dangerous, occasional use does not necessarily constitute addiction. Substance use disorder (SUD), the clinical diagnosis for drug addiction, is a chronic yet treatable disorder that involves compulsive drug-seeking and abuse despite the resulting harm. 14 Someone struggling with drug addiction may begin to exhibit several distressing symptoms.

DSM-5 Substance Use Disorder Criteria

There are 11 criteria outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) that are considered when medical professionals diagnose an SUD:15

  • Trying, without success, to limit the amount of a substance used or to quit using a substance altogether.
  • Using more of a substance or using it for a longer period of time than intended.
  • Expending a great deal of time in seeking out, using, or recovering from a substance.
  • Craving a drug.
  • Falling behind or missing obligations in school, work, or home life due to drug misuse.
  • Putting aside important professional, social, or recreational activities/commitments to seek or use drugs.
  • Using drugs in dangerous situations (e.g., driving under the influence).
  • Continuing to use drugs despite having health problems caused or made worse by drug use.
  • Continuing to use drugs despite it causing problems in relationships with friends, family, or romantic partners.
  • Developing a tolerance to a drug (needing more to get high, or not feeling the same effects despite using the same amount).
  • Feeling withdrawal symptoms when using less or abstaining from a substance.

At least 2 criteria must be met within a 12 month period for an SUD diagnosis to be made.15 Only a medical or mental health professional can diagnose an SUD.


Can Drug Addiction Be Cured?

There is no cure for addiction; however, alcohol and drug treatment has helped lead many people to long-term recovery.16 There are many different forms of treatment. Often, addiction treatment professionals refer to what’s called a continuum of care. This means the many levels of care a person may engage in as they work through their recovery. The continuum of care often begins with medical detox and may involve inpatient or outpatient care (or both) as well as aftercare options such as sober living and mutual support groups.

Treatment for Drug and Alcohol Addiction

Your treatment path may look very different from that of another person, and that’s okay. Addiction is an illness for which individualized treatment is critical. The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that effective treatment plans are those tailored to address each individual’s problems and needs.16 At Laguna Treatment Center, we offer individualized care and treatment plans that are created with your unique needs in mind.

Treating Addiction at Laguna Treatment Center

Driveway leading to main entrance at Laguna

Laguna Treatment Center offers medical detox for drug abuse and inpatient addiction treatment in Orange County with unique features and state-of-the-art amenities like:

  • Medication-assisted treatment for opioid and alcohol use disorders.
  • Treatment for co-occurring disorders such as depression or anxiety disorders.
  • Evidence-based and supplemental alternative therapies.
  • Nutritious meals using locally sourced ingredients individually selected for each patient under the guidance of a dietitian, taking any food allergies and dietary restrictions into consideration.
  • An alumni program that enables peers in recovery to stay connected after completing treatment.
Was this page helpful?
Thank you for your feedback.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is committed to delivering original, truthful, accurate, unbiased, and medically current information. We strive to create content that is clear, concise, and easy to understand.

Read our full editorial policy

While we are unable to respond to your feedback directly, we'll use this information to improve our online help.