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drug addiction and drug abuse: Types of Abused Substances

There are many levels of substance abuse and many kinds of drugs, some of them readily accepted by society.

Legal substances, approved by law for sale over the counter or by doctor's prescription, include caffeine, alcoholic beverages (see alcoholism), nicotine (see smoking), and inhalants (nail polish, glue, inhalers, gasoline). Prescription drugs such as tranquilizers, amphetamines, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, steroids, and analgesics can be knowingly or unknowingly overprescribed or otherwise used improperly. In many cases, new drugs prescribed in good conscience by physicians turn out to be a problem later. For example, diazepam (Valium) was widely prescribed in the 1960s and 70s before its potential for serious addiction was realized. In the 1990s, sales of fluoxetine (Prozac) helped create a $3 billion antidepressant market in the United States, leading many people to criticize what they saw as the creation of a legal drug culture that discouraged people from learning other ways to deal with their problems. At the same time, readily available but largely unregulated herbal medicines have grown in popularity; many of these are psychoactive to some degree, raising questions of quality and safety. Prescription drugs are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Prescription drugs are considered illegal when diverted from proper use, and such use is more common than than the use of all other illegal drugs except marijuana (which is now legal in roughly one fifth of the states). Some people shop until they find a doctor who freely writes prescriptions; supplies are sometimes stolen from laboratories, clinics, or hospitals. Morphine, a strictly controlled opiate, and synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, have typically been most often abused by people in the medical professions, who have easier access to these drugs, but semisynthetic opioids that are prescribed as painkillers, such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, have been more widely abused. In the 2010s, however, illicit synthetic opioids, either mixed into heroin or produced as counterfeit pills, became an increasing problem outside the medical profession, leading to stricter regulation and, late in the decade, a shift toward abuse of methamphetamine and cocaine. Other illegal substances include cocaine and crack, marijuana and hashish, heroin, hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD, PCP (phencycline or angel dust), designer drugs such as MDMA (Ecstasy) and acetyl fentanyl (added by drug dealers to heroin), and party drugs such as GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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