A Guide to Drugs and Substances of Addiction

Defining Addiction

While the substance(s) involved may differ from person to person, drug and alcohol addictions are complex brain diseases with common characteristics.

People struggling with addiction have:

  • Uncontrollable compulsions to use substance(s)
  • Experience strong cravings
  • Seek drugs or alcohol regularly
  • Continue these self-destructive behaviors despite the potentially devastating consequences

The Addiction Controversy

There is a well-known controversy that centers around the idea of addiction as a voluntary or involuntary behavior. On the one side, the theories state that people with addiction issues are making voluntary choices to use and willpower alone starts the recovery.

On the other side, which has proven research to back up their claims, the facts state that addiction takes over the brain and disturbs a person’s ability to control his or her behavior.5 While the first time an individual takes a drug or a drink may be a voluntary choice, as the disease progresses, taking substances becomes involuntary choices.

Substance Abuse Statistics

Addiction is a quickly changing and growing epidemic in the United States. The statistics regarding addiction are staggering:

In 2017, approximately 47,000 people died of opioid overdose. 1

Right now, about 2 million people are struggling with opioid addiction. 1

Each year, more than $740 billion in costs are generated from drug and alcohol use that is related to lost time and productivity at work, crime and health care expenses. 2

In 1999, deaths from drug overdose associated with heroin were 1,960. In 2017, that number grew to 15,482. 3

Deaths from drug overdose associated with psychostimulants (like methamphetamine) increased from 547 in 1999 to 10,333 in 2017. 3

Deaths from drug overdose associated with cocaine grew from 3,822 in 1999 to 13,942 in 2017. 3

Deaths from drug overdose associated with benzodiazepines grew from 1,135 in 1999 to 11,537 in 2017. 3

Deaths from drug overdose associated with antidepressants increased from 1,749 in 1999 to 5,269 in 2017. 3

Every year, an estimated 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes. 4

These startling figures show how both illicit substances, as well as legal drugs and alcohol, contribute to high rates of death in our country.

Addiction is an issue that urgently needs more understanding to help raise awareness and create more prevention and treatment resources.

Understanding how addiction works and the way substances can affect the brain and body are the first steps in addressing substance use disorders(SUDs).  

The Brain and Addiction

What Happens in the Brain From Addiction?

Your brain is quite complex, and it has different centers for different functions. One of these centers is called the pleasure/reward center. When you perform an activity that is pleasurable, such as eating a favorite food or spending time with someone you love, your brain activates the pleasure center.

This activation creates large amounts of the neurochemical dopamine that physically surges through you. The results are pleasing, enjoyable feelings. And as human beings, when we feel pleasure, we’re motivated to perform the same behavior to get the same good feelings.

How Substances Manipulate the Brain

When a person takes drugs or alcohol and experiences a “rush”, the resulting substance-induced dopamine surges have treacherous consequences. When someone repeatedly takes substances, it dulls the normal response of the dopamine system to everyday stimuli. Consequently, drugs or alcohol disrupts a person’s normal needs and desires and substitutes new priorities, which are getting and using drugs or alcohol.

On Cravings

Memory and behavior control centers in the brain are also affected by drug and alcohol use. Recalling experiences of using substances can trigger cravings. Being with people or in places that are associated with former drug or alcohol use can also trigger cravings. Stress can also set off cravings.

This happens because substance abuse affects the frontal brain regions that control desires and emotions, which can result in:

  • Poor regulation of behaviors
  • Impaired emotional processes
  • Memory problems
  • Decreased flexibility regarding task performance
  • Flawed reasoning skills
  • Poor problem-solving skills
  • Impaired planning skills
  • Decreased ability in decision-making skills
  • Poor ability to imagine future events and interactions

Substances of Abuse: A Comprehensive Guide


Excessive alcohol drinking is the third leading preventable cause of death in the
United States. 4

While moderate drinking, for the most part, is not harmful, people who develop an alcohol use disorder (AUD) suffer serious mental, emotional and social consequences. 

AUD is a chronic relapsing brain disease where people are:

  • Compulsive about their alcohol use
  • Lose control over the amount of alcohol they consume
  • Experience a negative emotional state when not drinking

A 2015 research study reported that a little more than 15 million people ages 18 and older had AUD. 4 In the same year, more than half of the deaths due to liver disease involved alcohol.


Stimulant drugs come in both illicit and legal forms. Stimulants are sometimes called uppers. Stimulants boost energy and increase alertness. Prescription stimulants are used to treat a variety of conditions, including Attention Deficit Disorder. Illicit street stimulant drugs include cocaine, crack cocaine and meth.

When stimulants are abused, they are taken orally, or they are crushed and made into a liquid that is injected, or the crushed pill is snorted. Once a person takes a stimulant and it begins to wear off, depression and exhaustion set in which motivates the person to want to use the stimulant once again. Repeated high doses of stimulants can be addictive, and some stimulants can cause paranoia and hostility.


Cocaine is a powerfully addictive stimulant street drug that is made from the coca plant. Cocaine typically comes in a fine, white, crystal powder form.

Cocaine dealers often “step on” (mix) the purer cocaine powder with other powdery substances such as baby laxative, talc or cornstarch to increase their profits. Some dealers mix it with other drugs such as the stimulant amphetamine.

Street names include coke and blow.

Crack Cocaine

Crack cocaine is the hard form of cocaine. When the powder cocaine is mixed with water and other solvents, then heated, it turns it into a hard, rock form. Crack is highly potent, very powerful and extremely addicting.

When crack cocaine is smoked, the powerful rush that users experience can quickly create a physical dependence, dangerous side effects, and debilitating consequences in the person’s life.


Amphetamine medications cause an increase in brain activity that results in an energy boost, increased focus, higher confidence, and when abused, a rush of euphoria. Well-known prescription amphetamines include Ritalin, Adderall and Dexedrine.

Amphetamines side effects can include doing dangerous activities due to feeling “invincible”, stroke, heart attack, heart failure, weight loss, malnutrition and sleeping problems.


Methamphetamine is a form of amphetamine that when made illicitly, is a powerful and highly addictive substance. Typically, illicit meth is ingested by smoking, snorting or dissolving the powder into a liquid form and injecting it. Meth abuse can result in dental problems, severe weight loss, and skin sores.

Prescription Drugs


Opioids are synthetic opiates that interact with opioid receptors located on the nerve cells in the body and brain. When taken for the short-term, opioids can be relatively harmless and help with pain relief. The drawback is that opioids can cause euphoria, and people who experience this can misuse opioids to obtain its euphoric effects. Typically, to feel a euphoric “rush” people begin misusing opioids by taking too much or taking it too often. These practices are the steps that lead to addiction.


Fentanyl is a highly powerful synthetic opioid that 50 to 100 times more potent than other opioids. Legally available only by prescription, it is used to treat people with severe pain problems, such as after surgery or those with advanced stages of cancer. The street version of fentanyl can contain high doses that can quickly lead to overdose and death.


Opana, also known as oxymorphone, is an opioid pain medication. Opana comes in an extended release form for relieving severe pain. It’s not used on an as-needed basis for pain, but rather for conditions where 24/7 pain management is needed.


Oxycontin is a pain relieving opioid drug available legally by prescription. The generic name of Oxycontin is oxycodone, and has the street names oxy and kickers.


Tramadol is an opiate painkiller used to treat moderate to moderately severe pain. The generic name for Tramadol is Ultram.


Vicodin is an opiate painkiller used to treat moderate to severe pain. The generic name for Vicodin is Hydrocodone.

Non-Prescription Drugs


Heroin is a drug made from the morphine extracted from the poppy plants. Heroin can be in the form of a brown or white powder, or a sticky, black substance known as black tar heroin. Other street names for heroin include horse, big H, and smack. Heroin is usually sniffed, injected, snorted or smoked.


Opium is a narcotic that is made from the poppy seeds of the opium poppy plant. The latex that is inside the seeds of the plant is dried and then turns gummy, making raw opium that is then ground into powder. It also can be turned into solid pieces for sale or treated to then create morphine


Benzodiazepines, also known as benzos, are drugs that affect the central nervous system (CNS). Benzodiazepines are used to treat many different medical conditions. Benzodiazepines work by acting on specific receptors in the brain, and they attach to these receptors to desensitize the nerves to stimulation, which has a calming effect.

Benzodiazepine medications are habit forming. Long-term use also can create tolerance, where more of the drug is needed to gain the same effects. The result is the need for higher doses, which can lead to addiction. Benzodiazepines are misused and abused to create a “rush” due to their effects on the brain. Benzodiazepines should never be stopped abruptly, but rather under the supervision of a healthcare professional.


Valium, generic name diazepam, is a prescription medication taken orally and it is used for the treatment of anxiety. Other names include Diastat and Diastat Acudial.


Xanax, generic name alprazolam, is an oral benzodiazepine drug used to treat anxiety as well as panic disorders. If stopped abruptly, it can trigger withdrawal reactions, such as seizures.


Ambien, generic name zolpidem, is an oral medication used to treat sleeping problems. Ambien helps people fall asleep faster, and at higher doses helps them sleep longer. Ambien is in a sub-class of drugs called sedative-hypnotics. Suddenly stopping Ambien can cause withdrawal symptoms which include vomiting, nausea, abdominal cramps, shakiness and nervousness.

Club Drugs

Club drugs are called such because they are typically taken at rave clubs. They are also called designer drugs because they are “designed” by manufacturers, rather than coming from nature like heroin or cocaine does. Club drugs include Ecstasy (MDMA), Rohypnol (roofies) and GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyric acid).


Ecstasy is a synthetic, psychoactive drug that is similar in effects to amphetamine and the hallucinogen mescaline. MDMA stands for 3,4-MethyleneDioxy-MethAmphetamine. Street names include Clarity, Adam, Eve, Lover’s Speed and Peace, and it’s typically taken orally or snorted.

MDMA short-term effects include lowered inhibition, increased sensory perception, higher heart rate and blood pressure, tense muscles, nausea, fainting, chills, sweats and a sharp increase in body temperature which can lead to kidney failure or death.

Long-term effects include confusion, depression, attention issues, memory problems, sleep disturbances, high anxiety, impulsiveness and a decrease in libido.


Roofies are illicit drugs made from powerful benzodiazepine sedative and hypnotic drug ingredients. The term roofies comes from the shortening of the trademark name for the drug Rohypnol that is not legally available in the US.

Roofies is called a date-rape drug, because it’s slipped into a victim’s drink, usually at a bar or party (which is why it’s also known as a “club drug”). Roofies produces strong amnesia, so a victim has little or no memory of a sexual assault.


GHB (Gamma-HydroxyButyrate) is also a popular drug used at clubs and parties for its intoxicating and sedative effects. GHB is also known as Reneutrient and Blue Nitro. GHB is illegal in the US. It is also used as a date rape drug, because its effects are similar to roofies.

Dissociative Drugs

Dissociative drugs distort how users perceive sight and sound and create feelings of detachment (dissociation) from themselves and their environment. Though they create perception changes, dissociative drugs are not considered hallucinogens. Dissociative drugs work by disrupting the neurotransmitters in the brain.


Ketamine’s legal use is to put someone to sleep, such as before surgery. It is also abused recreationally because of its tranquilizing and dissociative effects. Street names include Special K or K. Ketamine powder is used illicitly either by being snorted or sprinkled on tobacco or marijuana and then smoked.

The effects of ketamine depend on the dose. At low amounts, side-effects include a loss of memory, attention loss and impaired learning ability. Higher doses can cause amnesia, delirium, as well as serious breathing problems.


PCP (Phencyclidine) is an illicit drug that usually comes in a white crystal powder form. Commonly known as angel dust or rocket fuel, PCP users experience a distortion of sights, sounds, self, colors and their environments.

PCP works by affecting different receptors in the brain, including the glutamate, opioid, dopamine and nicotinic receptors. It’s either smoked, snorted or taken orally by dissolving it in a drink. The effects of PCP are dose-dependent and can include slurred speech, loss of coordination, involuntary eye movements, mood disturbances, acute anxiety and psychosis.


Salvia is an herb in the mint family, and it’s illegal in the US. Salvia works by creating changes in the brain’s chemistry by changing how the nerve cells communicate. Salvia’s effects can happen quickly and include distortion of sights and senses, detachment (feeling disconnected from one’s environment), sweating and mood swings. More research is needed to determine if salvia is addictive.


Dextromethorphan is legally manufactured in the US as a cough suppressant to control coughs. It is available in both over-the-counter and prescription combination medications. Also known as DXM, when abused it is a dissociative drug.

In low doses, it can cause mild stimulation, and with higher doses it can cause out-of-body experiences and perception distortions. Many states have restrictions on its over-the-counter sale due to the potential for misuse.


Hallucinogens are psychoactive substances that cause users to experience changes in the awareness of their surroundings, thoughts and feelings. The sensations, feelings and images that people experience seem real even though they are not. People who use hallucinogens refer to the experiences as trips.

If the experience is unpleasant, users sometimes call it a “bad trip.” Side effects can include paranoia, high anxiety, elevated heart rate, intense sensory and emotional experiences, nausea, and time perception changes, as well as dry mouth and loss of appetite. Some people report spiritual experiences when using hallucinogens.


LSD is a potent mind-altering drug. It is made from lysergic acid that comes from a fungus that grows on grains. LSD street names include acid, dots, blotter acid, and mellow yellow.


Also known as peyote, mescaline is derived from a cactus plant. Mescaline can also be synthetically manufactured. Street names include cactus, buttons and mesc.

Psilocybin (Mushrooms)

Psilocybin is found in certain mushrooms that originate in Mexico, South America and the US. Street names for psilocybin include shrooms and magic mushrooms.

Other Compounds

Anabolic Steroids

Anabolic steroids are man-made synthetic compounds of the male sex hormone called testosterone. Anabolic refers to the muscle building effects that can come from taking these drugs. Street names for anabolic steroids include roids, juice and stackers.

Steroids can be used to treat certain medical conditions, hormonal issues as well as muscle loss from diseases. Steroids are often misused by bodybuilders and athletes to improve their performance or to build muscles faster. Misuse of anabolic steroids can cause paranoia, extreme irritability, aggression (roid rage), impaired judgement, delusions and mania.


Inhalants refers to substances that are misused and abused by inhalation only. These substances include aerosol sprays, solvents, gases and nitrites (prescription drugs used to treat chest pain). Various household and workplace items can be misused as inhalants such as computer cleaner air cans, glues, paint and cleaning fluids. Inhalants typically wear off quickly, motivating the person to repeatedly “huff” or sniff the substance.

Inhalants are incredibly dangerous, as these chemicals are not meant for human consumption and can cause serious injury or death. Most inhalants work by acting on the central nervous system and slowing down brain activity. Short-term effects include lack of coordination, slurred or distorted speech, dizziness and euphoria.

If you or a loved one are experiencing substance misuse or abuse, know that recovery is possible with the right treatment. Contact Silvermist Recovery as the first step towards a healthier, revitalized and sober life.


  1. https://www.nih.gov/research-training/medical-research-initiatives/heal-initiative/heal-initiative-research-plan
  2. https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics
  3. https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates
  4. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
  5. https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2015/10/biology-addiction