Published on August 19, 2022

Most Widely Used Illicit Drugs in the U.S.

An illicit drug is any mind-altering substance that is illegal to possess and use. Some legal drugs, such as prescription medication, can also be used illicitly. For instance, if somebody takes a prescription that was not written for them, they are participating in illicit drug use, even if the drug itself is legal. 

Illicit drugs are some of the most commonly used drugs in the United States. Many of these drugs are highly addictive and can lead to serious health consequences. 


Marijuana is legal in several states. In Massachusetts, for example, people over the age of 21 can buy marijuana for recreational use. In most of the US, however, marijuana is still considered an illicit drug. 

Marijuana is usually smoked, but it can also be vaped or baked into food products. Its effects depend on the strain. One strain, called sativa, tends to produce uplifting effects, though some people experience anxiety and paranoia. The other strain, called indica, generally has a relaxing effect. 

The addictiveness of marijuana is debated, and it may depend on genetics. Much like alcohol, some people can consume marijuana without becoming addicted, while others have a higher risk for dependence. 


Cocaine is a stimulant drug that works by increasing dopamine, a feel-good brain chemical. After taking dopamine, people often feel energetic, happy, and social. 

After repeated use, the brain gets used to this dopamine release and begins to depend on it. As a result, many people find themselves using cocaine over and over again, even if they would like to stop. 

Cocaine produces several negative side effects, including heart complications and various types of anxiety


Methamphetamine, or meth, is another stimulant drug that is even more powerful than cocaine. Cocaine holds dopamine in place, and meth does the same, but it also stimulates additional dopamine production. This flood of dopamine makes meth especially addictive. 

Meth and cocaine also have similar side effects. Like cocaine, meth can make people feel anxious and experience heart-related issues. 


Ecstasy is also known as MDMA or molly. This drug is a stimulant, but it is also a hallucinogen, which means that it distorts how people experience sensory input. People who use ecstasy report increased feelings of emotional connection when they use this drug, which is why it is commonly abused at parties and clubs. 

Because of its dopamine-boosting properties, ecstasy can be addictive. It also carries the risk of impurities. Ecstasy is sold in tablets or capsules, and these pills are often tainted with other drugs. Some of these drugs may increase harmful side effects or even cause death. 


Heroin is an opioid drug that works similarly to prescription pain relievers. In fact, many people abuse heroin after becoming addicted to prescription opioids. This drug blocks pain signals and creates feelings of calmness, relaxation, and a false sense of safety. 

Because of this false sense of safety, heroin use can encourage risky behaviors. It can also lead to organ damage, respiratory failure, and other serious medical complications. 

How to Get Treated for an Illicit Drug Addiction

If you have an addiction to illicit drugs, you can discuss your addiction with your doctor. Doctor-patient confidentiality prevents your doctor from reporting your drug use to law enforcement unless you have a serious risk of harming yourself or others. Your doctor may recommend treatment options that can help you recover from addiction. 

If you don’t have a doctor, you still have treatment options. Detox programs can help you stop using drugs safely, and rehab programs can help you learn recovery strategies. 

Addiction is a complicated condition, but it is treatable. With the right treatment plan, you can reclaim your health and wellness.

SAMHSA National Helpline (for substance abuse): 1-800-662-4357

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