The Most Addictive Substances
Any drug that causes physical and psychological harm and that leads to addiction is dangerous. Addiction to any substance is a disease and one that is difficult to beat. Even addictive behaviors are very challenging to give up; it is the nature of the disease. However, there are chemical differences between drugs that make some harder to quit than others. Researchers have looked into just how different substances are in terms of addiction and created a scale. One such initial study conducted in the UK controversially placed alcohol and tobacco ahead of some illegal drugs, causing the lead author to be fired from his position as the country’s leading drug advisor.
As a follow up, Dutch scientists replicated the British study and created a dependency rating, giving each addictive substance a rating on a scale of zero to three. The results match that of the British research and are surprising. Keep in mind that the rating and scale is related to addictiveness only, not health effects, overdose rates, or anything else that contributes to the harm of the substance.
- The most addictive substance around is heroin. This result surprised no one who knows anything about drugs. Heroin is an opiate drug that floods receptors throughout the body and causes tolerance and addiction extremely quickly. It gets into the brain very quickly and easily, causing an almost immediate euphoric high. Additionally, the withdrawal symptoms of heroin are incredibly severe, making quitting a huge challenge. The rating on the Dutch dependency scale for heroin is 2.89.
- Crack cocaine is the next most addictive drug with a rating of 2.82. Although very similar to powdered cocaine, crack causes a quicker and more intense high in the user. The method of taking it in (smoking) is also more efficient making it a more quickly addictive substance than snorted, powdered cocaine.
- At number three with the same rating as crack, nicotine’s position has been a cause of great controversy. Nicotine may not cause the rush or high that crack and heroin provide the user, but its action on receptors in the brain is similar. Nicotine is so similar to a certain brain chemical, that its receptors were named nicotinic. Smoking cigarettes regularly reduces the sensitivity of the receptors and requires the user to smoke more and more just to maintain normal brain functioning. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, one in five deaths in America are related to smoking cigarettes.
- Methadone, the drug used to help heroin addicts, comes in at number four. Users develop a quick tolerance to it, which is desirable when treating heroin addiction. It helps addicts to resist the high from heroin. Unfortunately, becoming tolerant to methadone also leads to addiction.
- Crystal methamphetamine, or crystal meth, is the fifth most addictive substance. It mimics a brain chemical, wiring the brain to want more and more. It causes a cycle of craving that is extremely difficult to overcome. The rating on the scale for crystal meth is 2.24.
- Coming in at number six is the other controversial substance on the list: alcohol. With a rating of 2.13, alcohol is the sixth most addictive substance around. The withdrawal symptoms from alcohol can be so severe that they may cause death. The addictive properties of alcohol include its effect on the reward system in the brain that leads to intense cravings.
- Cocaine comes in at number seven on the list because of its effect on the brain chemical related to rewards and pleasure. Using cocaine results in a flood of dopamine in the brain and a resulting reduction in the number of dopamine receptors. With fewer receptors for the pleasure chemical, the body begins to crave cocaine to get that good feeling.
- Prescription amphetamines are the eighth most addictive substances. These drugs, such as Adderall used for ADHD, are similar to crystal meth and act on the same reward pathway in the brain, but are less addictive. They rapidly cause tolerance and cravings, as well as terrible withdrawal symptoms.
- Another class of prescription medications, benzodiazepines, comes in at number nine on the list. These are anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax and Valium. They cause tolerance and withdrawal when used inappropriately. Doctors always recommend that users taper off their use rather than trying to stop cold turkey for this reason.
- Rounding off the list of top ten addictive drugs is the club drug GHB. It causes a nasty withdrawal syndrome that makes it tough to quit. GHB is especially addictive when combined with alcohol. When used together, tolerance is reached more quickly.