List Of Commonly Abused Legal And Illegal Drugs
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List Of Commonly Abused Legal And Illegal Drugs

Lori Minor MSN, MHSA, RN

Medically reviewed by

Lori Minor, MHSA, MSN, RN

February 4, 2019

Many of the most addictive and deadly drugs are legal substances which have been misused or diverted for illicit use, like prescription medications. Illicit drugs also pose serious danger and risk of addiction because they are not monitored and may be laced with other substances. Despite this, many individuals use these substances recreationally to elicit a high, rush, or euphoric state.

Legal Drugs

Legal does not mean safe, nor does it mean that a drug cannot become addictive. In fact, it’s this very perception that makes legal drugs so dangerous.

Because of this mindset, some individuals are more apt to experiment with legal drugs and abuse them in greater quantities, more frequently. These actions can lead to dependence, addiction, and overdose.


Despite the level of social acceptance surrounding its use, alcohol is still a drug. Alcohol has a high potential for abuse and can cause many physical and mental health problems, some of which can be deadly.

Binge drinking, a popular pattern of consuming large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time, is actually a dangerous form of alcohol abuse. Patterns of heavy drinking which commonly accompany alcoholism are linked to depression, heart disease, liver disease, STDs, stroke, and various types of cancer.


Most inhalants are legal substances which can be easily purchased at a variety of stores. Inhalants are abused by all ages, though abuse is particularly popular in the young. One of the most popular inhalants is alkyl nitrites, or “poppers.” Others include:

  • paint thinners or removers
  • degreasers
  • gasoline
  • lighter fluids
  • permanent markers
  • glue
  • spray paint
  • butane lighters
  • whipped cream aerosol containers
  • nitrous oxide

Short-term dangers of inhalant abuse include cardiac arrest and suffocation. Frequent abuse can lead to brain and organ damage.


On a federal level this substance is not controlled, however, it may be prohibited in certain states. Using Kratom on a regular basis can lead to addiction. Abuse has been linked to anorexia, hallucinations, hepatotoxicity, insomnia, and seizure.

Synthetic Cathinones (Bath Salts)

Synthetic cathinones, or bath salts, are synthetically-produced stimulants or designer drugs. These crystalline powders are sold legally online and in stores as bath salts, jewelry cleaner, or plant food, often with the label “not for human consumption.” Examples of these products include Bliss, Cloud Nine, Lunar Wave, Vanilla Sky, and White Lightning.

NIDA reports that one chemical compound found in a common synthetic cathinone had an impact on the brain that was 10 times more powerful than cocaine. These drugs can rapidly change a person’s behaviors, leading to acts of violence, acute psychosis, aggression, agitation, combativeness, paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, and self-destructive behavior. These drugs can raise a person’s blood pressure and temperature to dangerous levels, cause seizures, and lead to fatal overdose.

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Legal Prescription Medications Which Are Illicitly Abused

Drug abuse isn’t limited only to recreational abuse. Misusing a personal prescription, that is, using it in a way other than prescribed qualifies as abuse.

These behaviors include using the drug more frequently, in higher doses, or altering the way it is taken (e.g. crushing it to snort, smoke, or inject it). In addition to this, taking someone else’s prescription to self-medicate concerns of pain, anxiety, or another physical or mental health condition is also considered abuse.

Anabolic Steroids

These drugs are abused to build muscle mass and increase athletic performance. Prolonged abuse of anabolic steroids can lead to kidney and liver damage, cardiac problems, high blood pressure, and problems with the sexual organs. Mental imbalance also occurs, such as aggression, extreme anger, widely variable moods, and delusions. Drug abusers may refer to these substances as Gear, Juice, Roids, or Stackers.


Benzodiazepines (benzos) are most commonly used to treat anxiety, insomnia, panic and seizure disorders, and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. These medications are central nervous system (CNS) depressants. In addition to the calming and tranquilizing effects, this means they slow down critical life support systems in the body, such as blood pressure, breathing, heart, and temperature rates.

At levels of abuse, this action places a person at risk of respiratory depression and overdose, especially when abused with other CNS depressants like alcohol or opioids. In addition to these risks, benzos form physical dependencies quickly and are highly addictive.

The most commonly abused benzodiazepines include:

  • alprazolam (Xanax)
  • clonazepam (Klonopin)
  • chlordiazepoxide (Librium)
  • ciazepam (Valium)
  • Flunitrazepam (Rohypnol) (may be used as a date rape drug)
  • lorazepam (Ativan)
  • temazepam (Restoril)

When used recreationally, benzos may be referred to as Candy, Downers, Sleeping Pills, or Tranks.


Barbiturates act similarly to benzodiazepines, producing a sedative effect. They are also used as hypnotics, anesthetics, and anticonvulsants. Once prescribed fairly frequently, many doctors now prefer benzodiazepines due to their decreased potential for overdose when compared to barbiturates.

Commonly abused barbiturates include:

  • amobarbital (Amytal)
  • mephobarbital (Mebaral)
  • pentobarbital (Nembutal)
  • phenobarbital (Luminal)
  • secobarbital (Seconal)

When used recreationally, barbiturates may be referred to as Barbs, Phennies, Red Birds, Reds, Tooies, Yellow Jackets, or Yellows.

Prescription Opioid Painkillers

Prescription opioid abuse is largely driving the opioid epidemic in America. While some drug abusers may take an opioid painkiller to elicit these drug’s hallmark pain relieving effect, most do so to create a high or euphoric state. Abusing opioid drugs, in these ways, endangers a person’s health and life. Opioid painkiller abuse can quickly turn into a compulsive and crippling addiction.

As CNS depressants, levels of abuse may cause life-support systems to shut down, leading to unconsciousness, coma, overdose, and death. Research shows that prescription opioid abuse may increase a person’s risk of developing a heroin use disorder.

Some of the most commonly abused opioids in the U.S. include:

  • codeine
  • fentanyl (Actiq, Duragesic)
  • hydrocodone (Vicodin, Norco)
  • hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • meperidine (Demerol)
  • methadone (Dolophine, Methadose)
  • morphine (Duramorph, MS Contin)
  • oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet)
  • oxymorphone (Opana)

Prescription Stimulants

Prescription stimulant drugs are most well-known for their use as treatments for ADHD, however, these medications are also used to treat narcolepsy, binge eating disorder, and in certain cases, some may be used off-label for weight loss. Examples include:

  • dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine)
  • dextroamphetamine/amphetamine (Adderall)
  • methylphenidate (Concerta and Ritalin)
  • lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse)

When abused, these medications are frequently used as performance-enhancing drugs. Individuals take them in an attempt to increase their academic or professional capabilities. Frequently referred to as “study drugs,” these substances are highly addictive, and abuse can lead to psychosis, seizures, and heart failure.


Chemically similar to benzodiazepines, these drugs are used as sleeping pills due to their intensely sedative effect. Examples include:

  • zolpidem (Ambien)
  • zaleplon (Sonata)
  • eszopliclone (Lunesta)

Abusing these drugs leads to an increased risk of motor vehicle accidents, nocturnal activity with amnesia, hallucinations, psychosis, coma, and overdose.

Over-The-Counter Drugs Which Are Abused

Illicit drugs and abused prescription medications aren’t the only substances which can be abused. In pursuit of a high, many individuals, especially teens turn to over-the-counter medications due to their availability.

Dextromethorphan (DXM)

This cough suppressant can cause a person to feel disconnected from their body and surroundings. Frequently abused by teens, DXM is commonly mixed into beverages, a cocktail termed “robotripping” or “skittling.” In large doses, this medicine acts as a depressant and occasionally as a hallucinogenic with properties that somewhat mimic PCP and ketamine. Frequent use can lead to addiction.


This anti-diarrheal drug is frequently used to reduce opioid withdrawal and cravings, though some use it to create a euphoric state. Misuse can cause a person to faint, have a rapid or irregular heartbeat, or experience complications of the kidneys.

Illegal Or Illicit Drugs

Legal drugs are purchased on the street, and from this, they have a high risk of being impure or cut with other harmful substances or drugs. Many are extremely addictive and hold a high potential for overdose.

Cocaine (Including Crack)

Cocaine, including crack, is an extremely addictive stimulant drug. Crack is more potent than powdered cocaine and is more frequently smoked (versus snorting it like powdered cocaine). Long-term use can lead to seizures, nasal damage, heart disease, heart attack, stroke, and overdose. Even one use of cocaine can cause a deadly overdose.


Gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB) is produced in illicit laboratories, though the prescription drug sodium oxybate (Xyrem) is also considered GHB. Used as a party drug and in clubs, this substance is also used as a date rape drug. As a depressant, GHB can cause drowsiness, unconsciousness, seizure, coma, and death.

Hallucinogens And Dissociative Drugs

Hallucinogens and dissociative drugs alter a person’s perception of reality and the way they think. This could include audio, visual, tactile, or emotional changes or changes in the way a person judges time. Some individuals may feel removed from their body or their surroundings.

These drugs include:

  • ketamine (Special K)
  • LSD
  • mescaline (peyote)
  • PCP
  • psilocybin (Magic Mushrooms or Shrooms)
  • salvia (is not controlled federally, though in some states it is)
  • DMT
  • ayahuasca (the DMT from ayahuasca is illegal)


Though the Khat plant is not illegal, use of this drug is, due to the substance’s Schedule I classification. This is because it contains the psychoactive substances cathinone and cathine. Abuse can cause insomnia, short-term memory problems, gastrointestinal distress, heart attack, and, in rare cases, psychotic tendencies.


Despite its legal standing and use as a medication in certain states, marijuana is still widely illegal. In addition to the plant form, marijuana extracts are also abused. These include hash or honey oil, shatter, vape cartridges, or wax.

Country to what many individuals think, marijuana is addictive. It can cause a variety of health problems, too. The increased heart rate caused by use could cause a heart attack. Marijuana use during and after pregnancy can impair a child’s development. Certain mental health problems have been linked to long-term marijuana use, including temporary hallucinations or paranoia and an exacerbation of schizophrenia.

Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids or “fake weed” are dangerous impersonators of marijuana. These mind-altering chemicals may be sold as liquids for vaporizing devices or e-cigarettes or sprayed on dried plant matter (to resemble marijuana) for smoking.

These substances are far from safe and have been linked to hallucinations, psychosis, acts of violence, and even episodes of deadly bleeding caused by rat poison-laced drugs. Once legal, it’s now illegal to buy, sell, or possess many of these chemicals. Commonly found versions include K2 and Spice.


The effects of these drugs are similar to prescription opioids, in that they produce a pain relieving effect and euphoria. Illegal opioids include:

  • heroin
  • illicitly produced fentanyl
  • carfentanil
  • synthetic Opioid U-47700 (“Pink”)
  • Grey Death
  • other fentanyl analogs

Heroin is highly addictive, with a high potential for overdose. In addition to the prescribed form, fentanyl is also produced in illicit laboratories. Both of these drugs are frequently cut or laced with other substances, including other, more potent opioids. These potent, synthetically produced opioids, like carfentanil, Pink, and Grey Death (which is often a combination of the aforementioned) are so strong that a minuscule dose can be lethal.

MDMA (Ecstasy/Molly)

MDMA is a synthetic drug with both stimulant and psychedelic properties. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, its effects resemble a combination of the stimulant amphetamine and the hallucinogen mescaline.

This drug is frequently cut or mixed with other substances, including cocaine, ketamine, methamphetamine, over-the-counter cough medicine, and synthetic cathinones. This increases the danger of adverse health effects and overdose. MDMA can cause a person’s body temperature to rapidly rise, which in certain cases leads to heart, kidney, or liver failure and/or death.


Methamphetamine or meth typically comes as a powder, while crystal meth resembles shards of glass or bluish-white rocks. Highly addictive, the stimulant properties of this substance can cause cardiovascular collapse and death. The effects on the brain can be extreme, leading to delusions, hallucinations, psychosis, and violent behaviors.

Substance Use Disorders Are Best Treated With Professional Help

Regardless of the drug of abuse, if a person is addicted they need help. In addition to the physical and mental health problems, prolonged drug abuse and addiction can damage a person’s relationships, career, and educational goals.

Certain forms of drug abuse require more intensive care, including a medically-supervised detoxification. Professional, evidenced-based treatments provide comprehensive care. Behavioral therapies help to heal the emotional and mental impacts of an addictive lifestyle while teaching individuals versatile coping and relapse prevention skills.

Contact to learn more about drug abuse, addiction, and treatment options.

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Commonly Abused Drugs Charts

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Marijuana

National Institute on Drug Abuse - MDMA (Ecstasy/Molly)

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Synthetic Cathinones ("Bath Salts")

U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Agency - Drugs of Abuse: A DEA Resource Guide 2017 Edition

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