Why Is Drug Abuse So Widespread In The USA?

Drug addiction continues to rise in the United States each year. While there are plenty of treatments available to individuals who are suffering, it raises questions as to why. In 2017, it was reported that 19.7 million adults in America battled with a substance use disorder. These are significant numbers that need to be acknowledged by our society. 

Unfortunately, the high number of drug users also comes with a high number of long-term users and overdoses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has labeled America’s drug crisis as a drug overdose pandemic, due to the significant figures society is still seeing today. The COVID-19 pandemic is also having a negative impact on drug addictions in America, by providing new risks for users, as well as decreasing access to treatment and recovery. Drug addiction negatively impacts the individual and their quality of life, but also their friends, family, and community. 

It can be difficult to understand how or why individuals become addicted to drugs. It is often perceived as an individual being weak, lacking willpower, or having poor moral principles. However, this is far from the truth as drug and substance addiction is extremely complex and involves a range of different personal, biological, environmental, and situational factors. Once addicted, it can be extremely difficult for a person to quit without the right support or environmental changes. Unfortunately, an individual cannot just stop taking drugs without severe withdrawal and health problems, due to the changes that are made in the brain and the body. This is why the best course of action is a professional and judgment-free treatment that is tailored to the individual. 

What is drug abuse? 

Why Is Drug Abuse So Widespread In The USA?

Drug abuse is defined by health professionals in a variety of ways but is essentially the use of a drug (legal or illegal) in a dose that is harmful. Some health professionals are also moving away from the term “drug abuse” and instead of using terms such as “substance type problems” and “problematic use of drugs” to help the research in taking a broader look at drug abuse, and better support those who are struggling, as it is identified as a disease, not a weakness. It has also been difficult amongst professionals to define what level of drug use constitutes abuse. This is because it is a widely debatable topic, due to the range of uses of drugs, and how laws vary on certain substances in different countries (including the legal amount an individual can consume). 

The most common drugs that are associated with drug abuse in America are alcohol, opioids, cannabis, hallucinogens, cocaine, amphetamines, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and methaqualone. 

Misuse is a term often used to describe when the individual has been prescribed medication, such as a sedative, and the individual is at risk of overdose and/or serious adverse effects. 

What causes drug abuse? 

There is no one cause of drug abuse that can be easily defined. Drug abuse can manifest from a wide variety of factors that increase a person’s vulnerability and risk, including genetic disposition, a bad habit with repeated exposure, and environmental factors, which is why it is so widespread in America. More often than not, it is a range of factors, as opposed to just one, that has led to drug abuse. 


Research has shown a significant link, approximately 40% to 60%, between the role of a person’s genes in their drug addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is researching the different gene variations which are involved in making a person more vulnerable to drugs. It is important to note that, with a family of drug users, the use of drugs is often normalized in the environment a person grows up in and becomes accustomed to that lifestyle, which can significantly impact their future use and abuse of drugs. 

Why Is Drug Abuse So Widespread In The USA?


Statistically, men are more likely to use drugs than women, which also means a higher rate of hospital admissions and overdose deaths in men, especially with the use of illicit drugs. 

The American Psychological Association has reported that they believe there are key differences in the rate of drug abusers related to gender. Their preliminary research has found that women generally use fewer drugs than men, but are more likely to become addicted to drugs and more likely to relapse after recovery than men. 


Whether a person has a genetic predisposition to drug abuse or not, there are still a variety of environmental factors that can impact a person’s risk of abusing drugs. Firstly, a person may grow up in an environment that negatively impacts their mental and physical health and well-being, which drives them to seek relief from reality via the use of drugs. Secondly, if a person has family members that use drugs, specifically their parents or guardians, they will grow up exposed to drugs, and therefore, it will be much more normalized for them and they will become desensitized to the negative impacts of drugs in comparison to a household that bans the use of drugs. Because of these factors, it increases their chances of abuse. Children will learn that drugs are a way of life or that using drugs leads to pleasure.

Alternatively, families can sometimes encourage the use of drugs, which adds a lot of pressure to conform. This can also be the same with school and peers. If a person associates with friends who use drugs, it may be normalized for them or they can become peer pressured into using them, leading to abuse and addiction. There are also arguments on television programs, the news, and social media and their impact on vulnerable individuals. It has also been reported by researchers that big events in society, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, have caused a serious increase in drug use.  

Mind and body

You don’t have to be directly exposed to drugs to be vulnerable to them. The reason that drugs are so addictive is that they typically provide a person with a pleasurable feeling or experience. Unfortunately, society is all about quick fixes and quick dopamine hits, whether that is through food, sex, or a variety of enjoyable activities. When you do something you enjoy, there will be a release of the dopamine neurotransmitter, which signals to the brain that you have been rewarded in some way, and to feel that happy hit again, you must repeat the task.

Why Is Drug Abuse So Widespread In The USA?

When a person takes drugs, an unnatural release of dopamine will also occur in the body, which creates that addictive cycle people are at risk of abuse. Unfortunately, the more this cycle of drug use for a hit of dopamine continues the body’s tolerance level changes. Therefore, a person will require higher doses of the drug to receive the same level of pleasurable feelings they previously experienced. This is where significant abuse and danger occur. 

It is also important to note that, when a person is addicted to drugs their mind and body are under the impression that they need the substance to survive. That means that when a person tries to withdraw, the symptoms can be extremely severe and painful, which makes it much easier to continue using them. 

Mental health 

If a person has poor mental health, whether that is depression, anxiety, a chronic illness, or loneliness, it can lead to seeking external sources of relieving or numbing the pain they feel daily or a prop to help them get through a challenging time. Unfortunately, this is where many individuals turn to drugs. Drugs don’t always have the desired effect and can leave individuals in a vicious cycle that often leads a person to feel more depressed and anxious than before. This will, however, depend on the type of drug being abused.

Socio-economic disadvantage 

Some individuals who live in poverty, with little to no access to education and healthcare, and are extremely marginalized in society, have a much higher risk of drug abuse. They also pose more risks, due to the number of barriers individuals face (such as stigma and discrimination) to getting reliable and necessary treatment. 

Why is drug abuse so widespread?

There are many reasons why drugs are extremely widespread in America, and not one issue can be isolated. Factors that contribute to the problem are the high availability of drugs, the role of society and culture, and the number of individuals who have significant risk factors as outlined above. Accessibility of drugs remains high; however, that can depend on the state legislation, culture, poverty, health system, and medical prescribing practices.

Research related to drug abuse is always ongoing to improve the health and wellbeing of individuals, and the general public as a whole. Many efforts are also being put into understanding how to better, and more efficiently, detect and respond to drug abuse trends, how drugs impact the body and brain, and accessibility and variety of treatments. 

How does someone break the cycle of drug abuse?

It would be beneficial for society to understand how drug abuse develops, and impacts the brain and body, how to avoid temptation, and where you can seek support and treatment. There are a variety of treatment options a person can seek if they are suffering from drug abuse. For example, telehealth sessions or an intensive outpatient program. In some cases, an insurance company may be able to provide financial support. The support must be tailored to individual needs, as everyone will respond to recovery differently. 

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