What is the most addictive drug in the world?
People will often assume that the most addictive drug will be something sold in dark corners are back alleys. But the answer is it is sold at a drive-thru, mass produced and packaged in colorful containers to delight the whole family.
In fact this drug has been ranked as more addictive than marijuana and it’s the last socially accepted addiction.
While the concept of addiction is a complex one, the winner for most widely abused drug is caffeine.
Addiction is not a term to be taken lightly, it spans a complex process of physical and psychological aspects.
Independently Dr. Jack E. Henningfield of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and Dr. Neal L. Benowitz of the University of California at San Francisco, ranked six psychoactive substances, nicotine, heroin, cocaine, alcohol, caffeine and marijuana, on the five criteria they felt were most important in addiction.
The first of their criteria was withdrawal. Their study defined the severity of withdrawal symptoms produced when use was discontinued.
Both researchers rated alcohol as having the most severe withdrawal symptoms, for example hallucinations and convulsions, and the fact that withdrawal from alcohol is the only one of the included drugs that is potentially fatal.
The second criterion is reinforcement. What is the drug’s tendency to induce users to take it again and again. Basically, how much did they crave it again. This is influenced by the feelings that taking the drug brings, that is whether it is a pleasurable high or not, obviously if the feelings are negative there will be little incentive to repeat the experience. Again both researchers were in agreement and rated cocaine as the most reinforcing.
The third criterion was tolerance, this is defined as the user’s need to have ever-increasing doses to get the same effect. In this instance the studies diverged and the Henningfield research rated heroin first and Benowitz rated cocaine as first.
How Addictive = How Hard To Quit
The fourth criterion was dependence. Basically how hard is it to quit, or to stay off the drug. This is defined by the number of users who eventually become dependent.
Most research will view dependence as a hallmark of addiction. Both studies concluded that nicotine was the highest rated for dependence. For the other drugs they both rated them in the same order that is highest for dependence, nicotine, then heroin, cocaine, alcohol, caffeine, and last marijuana.
The final criterion is intoxication. This is the degree of intoxication produced by the drug in typical use. Again the researchers are in agreement and rate alcohol as the most intoxicating of the drugs.
Given the complexity of the addictive process it is not surprising that there is not a clear ‘winner’ in all criteria.
But let’s take a broader look at all these substances. Caffeine is the only one that can claim daily use by 68% of the US population. And 90% of the population using it at least occasionally. We are clearly using and abusing caffeine at levels that no other substance can compare to and it was not being rated as the last in any of the research. Clearly this is a drug that has severe implications for misuse and side effects.
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