Most Addictive Substances Around the World

09/17/19: Addiction
Addiction is non-discriminatory. It can affect anyone and everyone, regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic status, geographical location, etc. However, there are some substances that have a higher likelihood of leading to full-blown substance abuse disorder. And believe it or not, 2 out of 5 of these substances are actually completely legal in most parts of the world. So what are the most addictive substances in the world? We’ll discuss what makes a substance so addictive, and which ones you especially need to look out for because of their highly addictive properties.

What makes one substance more addictive than others?

There are physical and psychological factors that contribute to addiction, and therefore it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact level of “addictiveness” anyone substance has. There are many other contributing factors to someone’s propensity towards addiction, such as stress levels, life satisfaction, attitudes about drug use, and the presence of mental or physical health issues. Any combination of these things can leave a person more or less vulnerable to developing a serious problem. Despite this, researchers and scientists have determined a way to rank drugs for addictiveness based on five factors:
  • Dependence. 
This takes into account a variety of things, such as the relapse rate, percentage of people who become addicted to the drug vs who simply use it recreationally, self-reports of the need for the drug from people who are addicted, how difficult it is to quit, and the degree to which the drug is likely to be used despite knowledge of the harmfulness of the drug.
  • Withdrawal.
Withdrawal is what substance-addicted persons experience when they go long periods of time without using. In the context of determining a substance’s addictiveness, this considers the severity of the symptoms that arise when a person ceases taking the drug. Each drug has somewhat of a different set of withdrawal symptoms, and therefore some may be more unbearable than others. This also considers the length of the withdrawal period. Some symptoms may only last a handful of days, while others may persist for months.
  • Tolerance. 
Tolerance is built up over time with continued use of the drug to get that sensation of being “high”. The more a person uses a substance, the more they will need to increase the dose over time to experience the feeling they crave. The more tolerance they have built up, the higher the quantity of the drug they are putting into their system, which can make it increasingly more addictive in the brain.
  • Reinforcement.
A measure of the substance's ability to get users to take it again and again, and in preference to other substances.
  • Intoxication.
Though not usually counted as a measure of addiction in itself, the level of intoxication is associated with addiction and increases the personal and social damage a substance may do.

Top 5 Most Addictive Substances Around the World

This list is based on the findings of scientist and researcher David Nutt and his team.
  1. Heroin
Heroin is pretty well known as being one of the most addictive substances out there, most saying it only takes one use to become addicted for life. This is a pretty terrifying thought. This drug is made from morphine which is extracted from the seed pod of poppy plants grown in Southeast and Southwest Asia, Mexico, and Colombia. Heroin can come in white or brown powder form or in a black, sticky substance referred to as black tar heroin. Prescription opioids for pain management (such as OxyContin and Vicodin) are very similar to heroin in chemical makeup and effect. Research suggests that many people who start out misusing prescription painkillers may eventually turn to heroin because it is inexpensive and much easier to acquire. Heroin has the potential to increase the level of dopamine in the brain’s reward system by up to 200%. It is also one of the most dangerous because the dose that can cause death is only five times greater than the dose required for a high.
  1. Cocaine
Cocaine is a stimulant drug produced from the leaves of the coca plant found in South America. Cocaine takes the form of fine, white, crystal powder. Unfortunately, as a street drug, this substance is liable to be mixed with much more dangerous stimulants such as amphetamine or fentanyl. This can lead to death, as the user typically isn’t made aware of the fact that the substance is tainted. One of the more popular methods of ingesting cocaine is through smoking it in the form of a rock crystal. This crystal is called crack cocaine, referencing the crackling sound the rock makes when it is heated. Cocaine interferes with the brain’s use of dopamine to convey messages from one neuron to another. This prevents these neurons from turning the dopamine signal off, leading to abnormal activation of the brain’s reward pathways. In experiments performed on animals, cocaine was shown to increase dopamine levels more than three times the normal level! Crack is a more addictive form and therefore leads to substance abuse disorder more frequently than the powder form of cocaine.
  1. Nicotine
This one is interesting because as we all know, nicotine is perfectly legal here in the United States. In fact, the country of Bhutan is the only nation in the world that has completely outlawed tobacco sales and use. However, it is widely known as being one of the most addictive harmful substances one can get their hands on, legal or illegal. Nicotine is derived from tobacco plants that come from the nightshade family. On its own, nicotine isn’t particularly harmful. However, it is highly addictive, reflected in the fact that there are over one billion tobacco smokers worldwide. Smoking is also the most common preventable cause of death in the U.S.
  1. Barbiturates
Barbiturates have essentially the opposite effects to stimulants in that they are sedative-hypnotics, describing their sleep-inducing and anxiety-decreasing qualities. Because of this, even a slight overdose can result in a coma or even death. Fortunately, barbiturates have pretty much been replaced by the less dangerous benzodiazepines for medical uses. This has led to a decrease in the number of people addicted to barbiturates. At low doses, barbiturates cause feelings of euphoria, which is why people use them to get high.
  1. Alcohol
Alcohol. By far the most common substance in use across the world with two billion people consuming alcoholic drinks on a somewhat regular basis. Of course, not everyone who consumes alcohol is considered to have a “problem”, but when the frequent consumption of alcohol leads to negative consequences in one’s daily life, then it may be considered to be teetering over into substance abuse disorder. According to research, alcohol increases dopamine levels in the brain’s reward system by 40–360%, depending on how much was drunk. The World Health Organization estimated that more than 3 million people died in 2012 due to damages caused by the over-consumption of alcohol.

In conclusion…

Keep in mind that while this list is a decent measure of the most addictive substances, there is no definitive way to truly nail down which substances are the “most addictive” due to the high variance of factors in not only the substances themselves but in people. Genetics, location, home life, mental health, and a huge number of other factors are at play in determining the level of addictiveness. One thing is for sure, however, and that is that it is important to have a conversation with your family and friends about the dangers of these commonly addictive substances. It never hurts to check up on someone, but it does hurt a lot to lose them to something like drug abuse.

If you or someone you know needs help with addiction, contact 602-737-1619 or email [email protected] to get the help you need. Our acclaimed recovery environment merges upscale, luxury accommodations with affordability, clinical expertise and an unwavering commitment to patient care and aftercare.

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