Illicit Drug Addiction and Abuse

With approximately 22 million users nationwide, illicit drugs include some of the most prevalent and potentially dangerous substances around.

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    Understanding Illicit Drugs

    illicit-drugsIllicit drugs refer to highly addictive and illegal substances such as heroin, marijuana and meth. While the decision to use one of these drugs for the first time is usually a voluntary one, an unexpected addiction can make the decision to quit later significantly harder.

    An addiction to illicit drugs changes the way a person’s brain works, and consequently, the way they think and act.

    The beginning of an illicit substance abuse disorder is marked by a physical dependence. This can be recognized by a tolerance to and withdrawal symptoms from the drug of abuse. Tolerance occurs when you need more of the substance to get the same effects as when you started. When a tolerance is established, a person may experience withdrawal when they stop using the substance. Withdrawal symptoms are severe and can include heart palpitations and seizures, depending on the type of drug used.

    The second part of an abuse disorder involves a psychological dependence on the substance. This is characterized by a desire to stop using the drug, as well as prioritization of its use over social and familial responsibilities.

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    While a person suffering from an illicit substance abuse disorder recognizes the negative consequences of their drug use, they feel unable to stop on their own. The best way to overcome a dependence on illicit drugs is treatment at an inpatient rehab center.

    At an inpatient rehab center, mental health professionals work closely with recovering individuals to uncover the root cause of their substance abuse, such as an undiagnosed behavioral disorder. During rehab, patients learn healthy and productive coping methods that not only help them maintain sobriety, but achieve a happier and more fulfilling life.

    Types of Illicit Drugs

    If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance abuse disorder, you’re far from alone. An estimated 23.9 million Americans aged 12 or older – approximately 9.2 percent of the population – had used an illicit drug in the month prior to a 2012 study. Rates of illicit drug use is highest among those aged 18 to 25.

    Find information on the most common forms of illicit substances below.

    • Cocaine

      Cocaine is a powerfully addictive stimulant made from the leaves of the South American coca plant, and normally comes in a powder form. Street names for cocaine include blow, bump, coke and snow.

    • Crack Cocaine

      Crack is the more pure and potent form of cocaine, which typically comes in solid blocks or crystals. Crack cocaine is typically smoked, allowing it to reach the brain more quickly and result in a short-lived – yet intense – high.

    • Ecstasy

      Used by many high-schoolers and young adults, ecstasy is considered a party drug or rave drug. Its psychoactive effects include enhanced sensory perception and can cause lowered inhibition.

    • Hallucinogens

      LSD, PCP, mushrooms and salvia are all examples of psychoactive or mind-altering drugs. While an addiction to this type of drug is less common than other drugs, use and abuse of these substances can cause severe negative side effects.

    • Heroin

      Heroin is an extremely addictive substance that is synthetically derived from the opium poppy plant. It comes in the form of white of brownish powder, or as a black and sticky substance known as “black tar.”

    • Inhalants

      Inhalants include household items such as spray paints, markers and cleaning supplies which are inhaled through the mouth or nose in order to achieve a high. Inhaling certain types of these substances can lead to heart failure, resulting in death.

    • Ketamine

      This substance is medically used as an anesthetic in veterinary practice. When abused, ketamine can cause hallucinations, sedation and confusion.

    • Marijuana

      Marijuana is one of the most commonly abused illicit substances. The main psychoactive ingredient, THC, causes temporary euphoria followed by drowsiness, slowed reaction time and increased appetite.

    • Meth

      Meth is an extremely dangerous stimulant that can cause users to become instantly addicted. The short-term effects of meth include alertness and euphoria. However, long-term use of meth can lead to problems such as violent behavior and severe dental problems.

    • Synthetic Marijuana

      Synthetic marijuana refers to the growing number of manufactured substances that contain a chemical similar to THC. Although synthetic marijuana is marketed as a legal alternative, the substance’s effects can be unpredictable and more intense than its natural counterpart.

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      Illicit Drug Effects and Abuse

      Many illicit drugs pose serious health risks, even when taken in small doses. Some drugs can cause an addiction after a single use.

      People who become addicted to certain illicit substances are at a high risk of overdose, which can be fatal. Many overdoses typically occur when a person relapses after trying to quit and returns to using the same dose. This is especially the case for individuals who consume illicit substances by means of injection.

      Heroin is one such drug that poses a high threat of relapse and subsequent overdose. Sadly, the number of deaths related to heroin overdose has substantially increased in the last decade. In 2015, the approximate number of heroin overdose deaths was 14,000 – a seven-fold increase from just above 2,000 deaths in 2002.

      Repeatedly using any type of illicit substance can impose short-and long-term consequences. Excessive substance use causes dramatic changes in the brain, which can disrupt a person’s psychological well-being. These changes may drive a person to behave differently than they would normally, causing them to make self-destructive decisions such as driving under the influence.

      Other ways that illicit substance abuse can negatively impact a person’s life include:

      • Damages to relationships with family, friends and romantic partners
      • Trouble staying on top of daily responsibilities and social obligations
      • Coming in late, or missing a whole day of work due to drug use
      • Lacking motivation to maintain grades in school
      • Financial hardships due to spending large amounts of money to maintain a drug habit
      • Legal consequences of being caught in possession of drugs



      In 2013, there were 19.8 million marijuana users aged 12 and over – up from 14.5 million in 2007.



      The number of people who used meth in the United States increased from 353,000 in 2010 to 595,000 in 2013.



      Over half of the 2.8 million new users of illicit drugs in 2013 were under 18 years old.

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      Treatment for Illicit Drug Addiction

      If you think someone you know is struggling with illicit substance abuse, there are multiple options for treatment and recovery. Whether you choose to seek inpatient or outpatient treatment, finding a rehabilitation center is the key to recovery from a substance abuse disorder. Learn more about treatment options for your specific needs.

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