The Five Most Addictive Drugs

most addictive drugs

The Five Most Addictive Drugs

While all drug addictions can be extremely detrimental both psychologically and physically, some drugs due to their potency and chemical makeup, can lead to addiction sooner than other drugs.

When a person takes a potentially addictive drug, there are multiple factors that determine if/ how soon they will become addicted to the drug. These factors include the intensity of pleasure that the drug induces, and the level of psychological and physical dependence that occurs. The pleasure that a drug brings can be affected by how quickly the drug enters the system, its effect on the pleasure centers of the brain and the amount of dopamine released. Psychological dependence can happen as a result of this pleasure. A craving for the drug develops that can lead to repeated use.

Physical dependence occurs when a person builds up a tolerance (needing a higher dose to receive the same effect) to the drug that they are taking. A tolerance can lead to dependence, which means without the drug the person will go through withdrawal symptoms. These physical symptoms that are often extremely uncomfortable and can become dangerous if not monitored by a medical professional.

Different drugs have different half-lives (the amount of time that it takes for them to clear your system), and this can greatly affect the time it takes to become dependent on them, and subsequently addicted.

The following is a list of the most addictive drugs as they relate to these factors:


According to the criteria listed above for addiction potential, Nutt et al. found that heroin was the highest rated across the three criteria. Heroin is an opioid and when taken it creates a massive influx of dopamine in the brain. It binds itself to the opioid receptors in the pleasure centers of the brain. These areas house our bodies reward systems. When heroin binds to the opioid receptors it creates a feeling of euphoria.

When a person stops taking an opioid like heroin, their mind and body will go through powerful withdrawal symptoms. While this particular study tested heroin, there are many other extremely strong opioids such as morphine, oxycontin, codeine, and fentanyl. In fact fentanyl is 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin. This means that it would most likely be even more addictive than heroin. Opioids are so addictive that a person can become addicted even if they are taking the drug as a prescribed medication.


In the same study, which rated the most addictive drugs, cocaine scored particularly high for feelings of pleasure and psychological dependence. Cocaine primarily acts on the neurotransmitter dopamine. When a person takes cocaine, the cocaine interferes with the process that allows the body to reabsorb dopamine, consequently flooding the brain with extra dopamine. This is what makes the person who is using cocaine feel euphoric.

Additionally, the way cocaine acts on the limbic system in the brain changes the structure of the brain and contributes to the persistent cravings for the drug. These cravings and intense pleasure lead to a strong psychological dependence on the drug, but since there are few physical withdrawal symptoms, the risk for physical dependence is much lower for cocaine.


Tobacco (nicotine) scored high across the board for causing feelings of pleasure, and creating psychological and physical dependence. When smoked, nicotine gets absorbed into the body extremely quickly, and binds to nicotinic cholinergic receptors; this releases dopamine into the pleasure centers of the brain.

After smoking consistently, tolerance to nicotine develops quickly, leading the person to smoke more and eventually become physically dependent on the drug. Tobacco (nicotine) is so addictive that while 80% of users attempt to quit each year, only 3% successfully quit the drug. Due to its harmful effects, many people desperate to quit seek out professional help.


Barbiturates have a long history of abuse despite primarily being prescribed as a medication for anxiety disorders.  Barbiturates are a powerful central nervous system depressant that binds on the GABA receptor. Barbiturates scored highly for pleasurable affect and psychological dependence.

When taken, barbiturates produce a calming sensation leading the user to feel euphoric and relaxed. Tolerance and dependence can develop quickly due to the fact that they are likely to be taken repeatedly. Many people may become addicted to barbiturates after using them as medication, or self-medicating for anxiety. More recently many physicians have chosen benzodiazepines over barbiturates due to the fact that they may be safer.


According to Substance Abuse and Health Services Association, in 2017 1 in 19 had alcohol use disorder. While it is safe to consume alcohol is moderate amounts, many factors can lead a person to develop an addiction to the powerful substance. It can be easy to drink too much, too regularly and develop a tolerance and dependence on alcohol, especially if you have a genetic predisposition for alcohol addiction.

Alcohol is ranked fairly high across the board for pleasurable feelings, and physical dependence. It ranked even higher for psychological dependence due to the fact that the cravings for alcohol that an addict experiences are intense. Like many other strongly addictive substances, alcohol consumption has been linked to the release of dopamine in the brain, leading to the activation of the reward systems and the feeling of euphoria.

The Most Addictive Drugs Are Not Untreatable

While abusing the drugs listed above may lead to addictions, this does not mean that there is not treatment available. Whether the addiction is primarily physical, or psychological, there is hope for recovery. Entering an addiction treatment program that values a holistic approach to treatment, and understands that addiction is multifaceted, can allow patients to not only understand the root causes of their addiction, but also find a way to live a life of sobriety. Even the most addictive drugs can be conquered. If you are ready to get help, or would like more information, contact a caring professional today at SpringBoard Recovery.


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Jason Bordonaro

I am licensed by the Arizona Board of Behavioral Health Examiners as an LPC and LISAC and am a National Certified Counselor with the NBCC. I am currently the clinical director at Springboard Recovery for outpatient treatment of substance use disorders. I am trained in EMDR therapy and hold a Master Level Certification in Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART). I am registered with the Arizona Board of Behavioral Health Examiners to provide supervision for interns and associate level counselors.