Over 20 percent of people in the United States (nearly 60 million people) used illicit drugs in 2020. Illicit drug use is the use of any drug that is classified as an illegal drug, either due to drug control status or nonmedical use of a prescription drug.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies drugs into drug schedules based on their control status. The highest controlled status is Schedule I, and these drugs are classified as illegal with no accepted medical use in the United States.
Schedule II, III, and IV drugs are tightly controlled. The lower the control number, the higher the potential for abuse, diversion, and addiction.
Keep reading to learn about the different types of illegal drugs, including prescription drugs, that are misused.
Cannabis, or marijuana, is plant material that often appears as shredded and dried green or gray leaves, stems, or flowers. It is commonly smoked or mixed with food or drinks and ingested.
The psychoactive element of marijuana is believed to be THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol).
- Mary Jane
- Aunt Mary
- BC Bud
Marijuana causes euphoria and relaxation. It often makes people more talkative and more likely to laugh.
Marijuana can cause anxiety and paranoia, difficulties with coordination and balance, memory and motivation issues, and an increase in heart rate and appetite.
Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug by the DEA, meaning that it is considered illegal on a federal level. However, it is legal for medicinal and recreational purposes in many states. Check with your state to determine the classification and legality of marijuana locally.
Possession of marijuana as a first offense is a federal misdemeanor. It can incur fines of up to $1,000 and up to one year of incarceration.
Depressant drugs come in pills, syrups, powders, and injectable liquids. They are most commonly ingested.
These drugs include the following:
- Barbiturates: These are sedatives, anticonvulsants, hypnotics, and anesthetics.
- Benzodiazepines: These medications produce sedation and hypnosis. They are prescribed as muscle relaxers, anti-seizure, and anti-anxiety medications.
- GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyrate): Approved to treat narcolepsy, GHB is commonly distributed as an illicit designer drug that is made illegally.
- Rohypnol: Often considered a date-rape drug, this is an illegal drug with no currently accepted medical use in the United States.
- Sedative-hypnotics: These are sleep aid medications.
- Quaaludes (methaqualone): This synthetic sedative-hypnotic is no longer legal for medical use in the United States.
Commonly Misused Prescription Drugs
Depressant drugs are often prescription medications that are used nonmedically for their mellow “high” or for the self-treatment of medical or mental health issues. Examples include the following:
- Nembutal (pentobarbital)
- Valium (diazepam)
- Xanax (alprazolam)
- Ativan (lorazepam)
- Klonopin (clonazepam)
- Lunesta (eszopiclone)
- Ambien (zolpidem)
- Sonata (zaleplon)
Depressant drugs often go by the following names:
- Liquid X
- Grievous Bodily Harm
- Georgia Home Boy
- Nerve Pills
Central nervous system (CNS) depressants slow down life-sustaining functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and lower body temperature. They induce relaxation and a sense of calm euphoria.
Depressant drugs can cause the following issues:
- Sedation and drowsiness
- Blurred vision
- Slurred speech
- Loss of coordination and slowed reflexes
- Nausea and vomiting
- Dangerously low CNS functions
Sedatives range from Schedule I to Schedule IV. Drugs such as illicit GHB, Rohypnol, and quaaludes being classified as illegal, Schedule I drugs with no medical use, while others range in classification based on their abuse, diversion, and addiction potential.
Laws vary state to state and based on the type of drug possessed. Simple possession of Rohypnol can come with up to a $5,000 fine and up to three years in prison, for instance.
Hallucinogens are most often found in plants or fungi or made in illicit laboratories. They can be smoked or taken orally. They include the following:
- Ecstasy, MDMA, or Molly: This is an illegal synthetic drug made in illicit labs that is both a psychedelic and a stimulant. It is often present at clubs, raves, and parties to promote intimacy.
- Ketamine: This is a dissociative anesthetic drug with hallucinogenic effects. It is also commonly distributed at raves, nightclubs, or private parties.
- LSD: This is an illegal hallucinogen that is made in illicit laboratories and sold on the streets.
- Mescaline and peyote: Peyote is a cactus. Mescaline can be extracted from peyote or made synthetically. Both are hallucinogens that have been commonly used in native religious rites.
- PCP: This is a powerful dissociative hallucinogenic, anesthetic, and painkiller known for creating feelings of invincibility and inciting violence.
- Psilocybin: This is a chemical derived from “magic” mushrooms. It is used as a hallucinogen.
There are a variety of street names for hallucinogens, often related to the drug itself. These can include the following:
- Magic mushrooms
- Special K
- Mind candy
- Blotter acid
- Angel dust
Hallucinogens cause sensory and perception distortions and hallucinations. They often cause a person to “trip,” the severity of which is usually based on the dosage.
These drugs can cause anxiety and paranoia. They can raise body temperatures and heart rates to dangerous levels. A “bad trip” can be frightening and lead to accident, injury, self-harm, or violence toward others.
Most hallucinogenic drugs are considered illegal, classified as Schedule I controlled substances with no accepted medicinal use in the United States.
As hallucinogenic drugs are largely illegal, they commonly carry a penalty of up to a $1,000 fine and up to three years in prison for simple possession.
Also referred to as volatile substances, these are not technically illegal drugs. They are often found in common household products like glue, lighter fluid, paint, air fresheners, felt-tip markers, butane, nitrous oxide, refrigerator coolant, and cleaning fluids. They are commonly abused by younger teenagers and preteens.
These products are abused by sniffing, bagging (inhaling fumes that have been collected in a plastic or paper bag), or huffing (from a balloon or rag soaked with the chemical).
Slang terms or street names for inhalants include the following:
Inhalants often produce a fast “high” that can be similar to alcohol intoxication. They often cause bodily systems to slow down. They can cause euphoria, and they may impair coordination and movement while lowering inhibitions and having a stimulant effect. Inhalants can also cause hallucinations.
Sniffing a volatile substance can have unpredictable side effects. This can lead to a syndrome called sudden sniffing death.
Inhalant abuse is extremely dangerous and can also lead to death from the following:
- Convulsions or seizures
- Irregular heart rhythms and heart failure
- Fatal injury
Inhalant abuse can cause brain damage, intoxication, fainting, lingering headache, sedation, and vomiting.
Inhalants and volatile substances are not scheduled by the DEA as controlled substances since they are generally found in common household products meant for other purposes.
While inhalants are not technically illegal products, there are commonly restrictions on who can buy them. There is often an age limit on products that are commonly abused. Someone under the age of 18 cannot generally purchase or possess spray paint.
It is also illegal to sell inhalant products to children under the age of 18 if the seller knows the person is going to abuse them by sniffing them.
Narcotics are a class of powerful drugs that have central nervous system depressant effects while also binding to natural opioid receptors in the brain to block pain sensations and cause a rush of euphoria.
Narcotic drugs generally refer to opioid drugs, which are extremely habit-forming and can lead to addiction in few uses. Opioid drugs include both illegal drugs, such as heroin and synthetic fentanyl made in clandestine laboratories, and prescription analgesics or pain relievers.
Opioids can be abused orally or by smoking, snorting, or injecting them.
Narcotic drugs are opioids. They may be in the following forms:
- Fentanyl: This is a powerful and extremely potent synthetic opioid that is both a prescription medication and an illegal street drug produced in underground laboratories.
- Heroin: This is an illegal opioid drug derived from the opium poppy plant that is commonly “cut” or mixed with other drugs on the street, including fentanyl.
- Prescription painkillers: There are a wide variety of prescription opioid analgesics that are prescribed to treat moderate to acute pain, particularly when other methods are not working. They are primarily designated for short-term use.
Commonly Misused Prescription Drugs
Prescription opioid abuse is considered a public health crisis, as these drugs are highly addictive and have a high potential for fatal overdose.
Between 1999 and 2020, more than 263,000 people in the United States died from a prescription opioid overdose. These drugs are commonly diverted and abused.
Whenever a prescription drug is used outside of the bounds of a legal and necessary prescription, it is considered drug abuse. Opioid drugs are some of the most commonly abused types of prescription drugs.
Prescription opioids come in a variety of forms, dosages, and strengths. Any alteration of the medication, taking it without a prescription, taking it in a way other than it was prescribed, or taking it outside of the way it was prescribed (such as taking more at time than prescribed, taking it in between scheduled doses, or continuing to take the medication after the prescription or time period has run out) is misuse.
These are commonly abused prescription opioid medications and their brand names:
- Fentanyl (Sublimaze, Actiq, Duragesic)
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Zohydro, Lortab, Norco)
- Hydromorphone (Exalgo ER)
- Meperidine (Demerol)
- Methadone (Methadose, Dolophine)
- Morphine (Duramorph, MS Contin)
- Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet, Percodan)
- Oxymorphone (Opana)
There are many street names for opioid drugs that vary depending on the type of opioid.
- China girl
- Dance fever
- Murder 8
- Tango and Cash
- King ivory
- Hell dust
- Big H
- Black tar
- Chocolate chip cookies
- God’s drug
- Mister blue
- First line
- Hillbilly heroin
Opioid drugs slow down functions of the central nervous system, lowering heart rate and blood pressure, slowing breathing, reducing body temperature, and causing relaxation.
These drugs can cause an intense and mellowing high as well. They impair movement, coordination, and cognitive abilities.
Opioid drugs can cause fatal overdose in as little as one use. They can also quickly lead to drug dependence, which comes with serious physical and emotional withdrawal side effects.
Opioids can cause drowsiness, slowed breathing, irregular heart rate, nausea and vomiting, constipation, and slowed and impaired physical activity.
Opioid drugs are classified between Schedule I and Schedule V based on their abuse and dependence potential and medical usefulness. Heroin, for example, is classified as a Schedule I illegal drug with no accepted medical uses in the United States.
Federal laws are harsh, especially for Schedule I narcotics. The penalty for possession of a small amount of heroin can incur fines of up to $2 million and prison time between 5 and 40 years. Possession of more of the illegal drug or possession with intent to distribute carries even harsher penalties and can lead to life imprisonment.
Anabolic steroids are synthetic drugs that are commonly abused to enhance athletic or physical performance, to improve muscle growth, and to enhance physical appearance.
These drugs are often diverted from prescription sources or smuggled into the U.S. from overseas via the internet. They are also bought and sold at schools, gyms, sporting events, and bodybuilding competitions.
Steroids can be taken orally, injected intramuscularly, or applied directly to the skin.
Commonly Misused Prescription Drugs
These are some of the most commonly abused anabolic steroids:
- Synthetic testosterone
Street names for steroids include the following:
- Weight gainers
Steroids can cause physical changes to the body, leading to muscle gain and growth as well as enhanced physical or athletic performance. They are often abused in a cyclical pattern to try and maximize the potential gains while minimizing the side effects.
Steroid abuse can have a host of issues depending on which one is used, the person using them, and how long they have been used for. They can stunt growth and lead to problems with sex organs, high cholesterol levels, and behavioral changes that can cause significant mood swings, irritability, increased aggression, and severe depression when these drugs are stopped.
Most anabolic steroids are classified as Schedule III Controlled Substances. Few are approved for human use.
Illicit possession of an anabolic steroid can come with a penalty of up to one year in prison and/or a fine of up to $1,000 for the first offense.
Stimulant drugs include both prescription drugs that are commonly prescribed for the treatment of ADHD or narcolepsy and illegal street drugs. These drugs can create an intense “high” and a low “crash” when they wear off.
Stimulants are highly addictive. They are often abused recreationally to get high, as “study” drugs, or diet aids.
They are abused orally, smoked, snorted, or injected.
Stimulant drugs include the following:
- Amphetamines: These medications are typically prescribed to treat ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
- Cocaine: This illegal stimulant drug is abused in powder or rock (“crack”) form.
- Khat: This stimulant plant is often chewed or brewed in a tea containing both cathinone and cathine.
- Methamphetamine: This is a synthetic stimulant drug that is commonly made in illicit laboratories.
Commonly Misused Prescription Drugs
ADHD medications including Adderall (amphetamine/dextroamphetamine) and Ritalin (methylphenidate) are commonly abused to enhance academic performance. They are used as study drugs to promote focus and concentration and help the person stay awake.
They can also be abused recreationally as “party” drugs or as weight loss aids as they suppress appetite.
Stimulant drugs have many different street names, such as these:
- Black beauties
- Vitamin R
CNS stimulant drugs speed up functions of the central nervous system, increasing blood pressure and body temperature and raising heart rate. They can also produce a rush of euphoria, bursts of energy, better focus, and promote wakefulness while suppressing appetite.
Stimulants are very habit-forming and can lead to physical and psychological dependence quickly. They can raise CNS life-sustaining functions dangerously high and cause a life-threatening overdose.
Stimulants can trigger significant withdrawal symptoms that include extreme psychological and physical side effects. They can cause paranoia, hostility, panic, aggression, and suicidal behaviors.
Many stimulant drugs are classified as Schedule II Controlled Substances, including methamphetamine, cocaine, and prescription ADHD medications. Cocaine and methamphetamine do have very limited prescription use, but they are most commonly abused as illegal street drugs.
Possession of illegal stimulant drugs, such as cocaine, carries hefty federal penalties of between 5 and 40 years in prison and fines of up to $2 million.
- Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. (October 2021). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- Drug Scheduling. Drug Enforcement Administration.
- Drugs of Abuse. (2017). Drug Enforcement Administration.
- What Are the Medical Consequences of Inhalant Abuse? (February 2011). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
- Drug Overdose Overview. (May 2022). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.