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The Most Addictive Drugs in the UK

Addiction is a complex and devastating condition that affects millions of people around the world. While addiction can stem from various sources, certain drugs are known to be more addictive than others.

These substances have the power to hijack the brain’s reward system, leading to an intense desire to use them and making it extremely difficult for individuals to quit.

In this article, we will explore the top 9 most addictive drugs, diving into their effects on the body and mind, the potential for abuse, withdrawal symptoms, and the treatment options available for those struggling with addiction.

1. Cocaine / Crack Cocaine

Types of Cocaine

There are two main forms of cocaine: powder cocaine and crack cocaine. Powder cocaine is typically snorted or dissolved and injected, while crack cocaine is smoked. The duration of the high differs between the two forms, with powder cocaine offering a shorter high compared to the longer-lasting effects of crack cocaine.

Effects of Cocaine Cocaine is a highly addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system. When consumed, it causes a rapid release of dopamine, resulting in an intense euphoric rush. This surge of pleasure is what makes cocaine so addictive for many individuals.

Short-term effects of cocaine use include increased energy, heightened alertness, and feelings of confidence. However, these effects are often accompanied by restlessness, irritability, and paranoia. Long-term use of cocaine can lead to severe health issues, such as heart problems, stroke, and even death.

Cocaine addiction rates

Cocaine addiction rates are alarming. According to the Office for Health Improvement & Disparities, from 2016 to 2017 there were 180,748 crack cocaine users in England alone. The market value of cocaine is estimated to be in the billions of dollars, highlighting the extensive demand for this addictive substance.

How addictive is cocaine?

Cocaine is one of the most addictive drugs, with users often developing a physical and psychological dependence on it in a short amount of time. Cocaine can be extremely addictive due to its effects on the brain’s reward system, in which dopamine is released that creates feelings of pleasure and euphoria. This feeling is so powerful that users will keep coming back for more, even when they know the risks associated with using the drug.

2. Fentanyl

Fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid, has gained immense notoriety due to its extreme potency and its prominent role in the opioid epidemic. This drug is a staggering 50-100 times more potent than heroin, making it an incredibly powerful and dangerous substance.

Effects and Risks of Fentanyl

One of the most concerning aspects of fentanyl is its rapid onset of effects. This means that even in small doses, it can quickly induce a state of euphoria and relaxation. However, it also means that the risk of addiction is alarmingly high.

Fentanyl is also strongly associated with overdose deaths. Its strength means that even a slight miscalculation in dosage can have fatal consequences. When users unknowingly consume fentanyl-laced substances, such as counterfeit pills or street drugs, they put themselves at immense risk.

Fentanyl Addiction Rates

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid painkiller that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and has become one of the most addictive drugs in the UK. It is used to treat severe pain, but can also be misused for its euphoric effects.

In recent years, Fentanyl abuse has skyrocketed in the UK due to its availability on the street and its low cost compared to other opioids. In 2017, there were more than 6,000 fentanyl-related deaths in the UK, and the rate continues to climb.

How addictive is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is one of the most addictive substances on the market due to its intensity and immediate effects when taken even in small doses. Fentanyl can produce strong feelings of euphoria, relaxation, and pleasure, which can make it difficult for users to resist its pull. As such, it is important to note that addiction to fentanyl can develop quickly, even after only a few uses.


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3. Barbiturates

Barbiturates, a class of drugs that act as central nervous system depressants, have gained notoriety for their highly addictive nature. These substances are primarily used as sedatives, hypnotics, and anticonvulsants, making them popular for treating conditions such as insomnia, anxiety, and seizures.

The Effects of Barbiturates

The prolonged use of barbiturates can lead to physical and psychological dependence. Abrupt cessation or reduction in dosage can trigger withdrawal symptoms, which can be severe and even life-threatening. These symptoms include anxiety, insomnia, tremors, seizures, hallucinations, and potentially fatal delirium. Therefore, seeking medical supervision during the withdrawal process is crucial for a safe recovery.

Long-term barbiturate use can also have detrimental effects on cognitive function. Individuals may experience memory impairments, decreased attention span, and reduced overall mental sharpness. In addition, barbiturate misuse significantly increases the risk of overdosing, especially when combined with other sedatives or alcohol.

Barbiturates Addiction Rates

Despite a decrease in usage since the 1970s, barbiturate addiction remains a major health problem, with an estimated 10% of people who have ever taken barbiturates becoming addicted.

How Addictive are Barbiturates?

The addictive potential of barbiturates lies in their ability to enhance feelings of relaxation and calmness. They work by increasing the activity of a neurotransmitter called gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), which reduces brain activity and induces a sedative effect. As a result, individuals may experience a sense of euphoria and reduced anxiety, making the drugs highly desirable.

4. Methadone

Methadone, a synthetic opioid, is an essential component of medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction. This treatment approach combines counselling and behavioural therapies with the use of medications like methadone to help individuals overcome their opioid dependence.

Effects of Methadone

One of the primary benefits of methadone is its ability to alleviate withdrawal symptoms and reduce cravings that often accompany opioid addiction. By targeting the same opioid receptors in the brain, methadone can mimic the effects of other opioids without the same intensity of intoxication. This allows individuals to transition away from more potent and harmful opioids, such as heroin, helping them to stabilize and regain control over their lives.

Risks of Methadone

It is crucial to emphasise that methadone should only be used as prescribed and under medical supervision. It is a highly potent and potentially addictive substance on its own, making it vital to follow a treatment plan designed by a healthcare professional. Regular medical supervision ensures that the dosage is adjusted correctly and prevents the risk of developing an addiction to methadone itself.

Methadone Addiction Rates

In recent years, the UK has seen a significant rise in methadone addiction rates. Statistics from the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse (N TA) in the UK show that from 2012 to 2016, there was an increase of more than 200% in the number of individuals admitted for treatment related to methadone addiction.

How Addictive is Methadone?

The addictive qualities of methadone depend on the individual, but it can be addictive when taken in large doses or for extended periods of time. It is also possible to become addicted to methadone after taking it as prescribed, and individuals may develop a tolerance, which means they need higher dosages to achieve the same effects.

5. Crystal Meth

Crystal methamphetamine, commonly known as crystal meth, is one of the most addictive and devastating drugs available today. Its potent stimulant properties make it highly addictive, leading users to experience intense bursts of euphoria, heightened alertness, and increased energy levels.

Effects of Crystal Meth

The addictive nature of crystal meth lies in its ability to rapidly increase dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in feelings of pleasure and reward. Crystal meth causes an excessive release of dopamine, flooding the brain with a surge of pleasure. This intense euphoria is what hooks users and keeps them coming back for more.

Long-term use of crystal meth can have devastating consequences. The drug damages the neurons responsible for producing dopamine and norepinephrine, leading to a depletion of these vital chemicals in the brain. This can result in significant cognitive and emotional impairments, including memory loss, mood swings, anxiety, and even psychosis.

Crystal Meth Addiction Rates

Crystal meth addiction rates in the UK are alarmingly high, with an estimated 575,000 people having used the drug in 2018 alone. This is a significant increase from the 250,000 reported users in 2016.

How Addictive is Crystal Meth?

Not only does crystal meth create a powerful physical dependence, but it also engenders a severe psychological dependence. Users become consumed with the desire to recreate the pleasurable effects of the drug, leading to cravings and compulsive drug-seeking behaviour. This psychological dependence further reinforces the cycle of addiction.


What Are The Stages
Of Addiction?

In the realm of substance abuse, understanding the stages of addiction is vital to recognising the signs and seeking appropriate help.

Read on to find out the stages of addiction so you can be best prepared to recognise them in yourself and others.

6. Amphetamines

Amphetamines, including prescription medications like Adderall and illicit substances like methamphetamine, are highly addictive drugs with powerful effects on the brain and body. These stimulant drugs work by increasing the production of dopamine and endorphins, which are neurotransmitters responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward.

Effects of Amphetamines

When someone takes amphetamines, dopamine levels in the brain skyrocket, leading to intense feelings of euphoria and increased energy. This surge of pleasure and heightened mood is what makes amphetamines so addictive. The brain quickly adapts to the increased dopamine production, leading to tolerance and the need for higher doses to achieve the same effects. This cycle of increasing tolerance drives physical dependence on the substance.

Amphetamine users often experience intense cravings for the drug, making it difficult to quit or cut back. They may also suffer from a range of physical and psychological symptoms, including insomnia, weight loss, hallucinations, paranoia, and irritability. The addictive nature of amphetamines can quickly take hold, leading to a debilitating addiction that can negatively impact all aspects of a person’s life.

Amphetamine Addiction Rates

Amphetamine addiction is a growing problem in the UK. In 2018/19, there were an estimated 6,000 cases of people seeking professional help for amphetamine-related problems. This was an increase of 12% on the previous year. The source of this information can be found at:

How Addictive are Amphetamines?

Amphetamines can be extremely addictive when abused, and can even lead to overdose and death in some cases.

When used for legitimate medical purposes, amphetamines can help people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) focus and stay alert. However, when misused, amphetamines become highly addictive and can cause a range of serious physical and psychological side effects.

Amphetamines increase dopamine levels in the brain, leading to intense feelings of pleasure, energy, and alertness. This surge of dopamine is what makes the drug so addictive. As users become accustomed to the drug, they develop a tolerance and need higher doses to achieve the same effects. This cycle of increased tolerance quickly leads to physical dependence and addiction.

7. Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines, a class of drugs commonly prescribed for anxiety and sleep disorders, are highly addictive substances with a significant potential for abuse. They work by enhancing the effectiveness of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain, which causes a calming effect on the central nervous system.

Risks of Benzodiazepines

Physical dependency is a significant risk associated with benzodiazepine addiction. The brain’s reward system relies on the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward. Chronic benzodiazepine use can trigger the release of dopamine, reinforcing the drug-seeking behaviour. By relying on benzodiazepines to trigger this release, individuals can become physically dependent on the drug.

The combination of benzodiazepines with opioids, such as prescription painkillers, poses an increased risk of overdose. Both substances can depress the central nervous system, leading to respiratory depression and a potential lack of oxygen. This dangerous combination can be fatal.

How Addictive are Benzodiazepines?

The addictive nature of benzodiazepines lies in the body’s adaptation to the drug over time. With regular use, the brain becomes accustomed to the presence of benzodiazepines and adjusts its chemistry to maintain balance. This leads to tolerance, where higher doses are needed to achieve the desired effects. Individuals who develop tolerance to benzodiazepines may find it increasingly difficult to quit or cut back on their use. 

8. Nicotine

Nicotine, found in cigarettes and other tobacco products, is widely recognised as one of the most addictive drugs known to mankind. Its addictive nature stems from its stimulant properties and ability to trigger intense cravings in users. Nicotine addiction is a complex issue, fuelled by the widespread availability of cigarettes and other tobacco products.

Effects of Nicotine

When nicotine enters the body, it quickly reaches the brain, where it binds to nicotine receptors and stimulates the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure and reward. This surge of dopamine creates a sense of euphoria and reinforces the behaviour of smoking or using tobacco products.

The addictive nature of nicotine becomes evident when individuals attempt to quit or cut back on their nicotine usage. Withdrawal symptoms arise as the brain and body crave the pleasant feelings associated with nicotine use. These withdrawal symptoms can include irritability, restlessness, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, and intense nicotine cravings.

Why is Nicotine so Addictive?

What makes nicotine addiction particularly challenging to overcome is the habitual and psychological aspects that accompany it. Smoking or using tobacco becomes intertwined with daily routines, social activities, and stress relief. These associations can make it incredibly difficult for individuals to break free from the grip of nicotine addiction.

Nicotine Addiction Rates

According to a report by Public Health England, the prevalence of smoking in the UK was estimated at 15.5% in 2018. Among these smokers, an estimated 6.3 million people – or around 20% of adults – are addicted to nicotine. This figure is lower than the European average of 24%.

The report also found that while smoking prevalence has declined among adults since 2011, there has been no significant decline among young people aged 11-18 since 2017.


Our compassionate addiction specialists are here to help you on your road to recovery.

9. Alcohol

While not often considered a ‘drug’, alcohol, the legal substance enjoyed by many, has a well-known addictive nature. Its effects on the brain and body can lead to both physical and psychological dependence, making it a highly dangerous and damaging substance.

Addictive Effects of Alcohol

Physically, alcohol can lead to addiction through the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward. When alcohol is consumed, it increases dopamine levels and creates a sense of euphoria. However, continued use can disrupt the brain’s natural production of dopamine, leading to a dependency on alcohol to achieve those pleasurable effects.

Psychological addiction, on the other hand, involves the compulsion to consume alcohol to cope with or escape from emotional or psychological issues. The intense cravings and preoccupation with obtaining and consuming alcohol are indicative of psychological addiction.

Withdrawal symptoms are another significant indicator of alcohol addiction. When individuals try to quit or cut down on their alcohol consumption, they often experience physical and psychological discomfort. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and may include tremors, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and even seizures in extreme cases.

Risks of Alcohol Addiction

The negative impact of alcohol addiction on mental health cannot be overstated. Excessive and long-term alcohol use can lead to depression, anxiety disorders, and cognitive impairment. Additionally, alcohol-related problems can strain relationships, hinder career prospects, and lead to legal issues.

Alcohol Addiction Rates

Actual addiction rates are hard to pinpoint for alcohol, but usage rates are regularly reported. According to a recent survey conducted by Drink Aware, 19% of adults were drinking at increased or high-risk levels.

Are you concerned about a loved one who might be tipping into alcohol addiction? Check out our article ‘Alcoholism symptoms: What are the warning signs of alcohol abuse?‘ to know the signs to look out for and get help before it’s too late.

What are the stages of addiction?

The stages of addiction can be described as a progression from initial drug use to full-blown dependence. It all begins with the brain’s reward system. When a drug is taken, it activates the brain’s pleasure centre, resulting in feelings of euphoria and reward. This reinforces the desire to use the drug again.

This can be broken down in the following recognisable stages:

  1. Initiation to the substance or behaviour
  2. Experimentation and initial use
  3. Abuse
  4. Tolerance: Understanding the Brain Changes in Addiction
  5. Dependence
  6. Addiction
  7. Recovery
  8. Relapse

To find out more, read our deep dive into ‘the stages of addiction‘.

Break Free From Addiction

Are you tired of living under the chains of addiction? Do you yearn for a life free from the grip of destructive substances? It’s time to break free from the clutches of addiction and take control of your life once again.

Addiction is a powerful force that can take hold of anyone, regardless of their background or circumstances. It is a complex issue that affects not only the individual but also their loved ones. This is why it is crucial to seek help and support in overcoming addiction.

To truly break free from addiction, there is hope for recovery. With the right support and treatment, you can overcome addiction and regain control over your life. The journey to recovery may not be easy, but it is undoubtedly worth it.

At Which Rehab, our addiction recovery specialists are on hand to get you the help you need. A free call can give you advice and guidance, and we can get you booked into a rehab that suits your requirements. 

Don’t let addiction hold you back any longer. Take the first step towards recovery today and break free from the chains of addiction. You deserve a life of happiness, health, and fulfilment, and we are here to help you achieve it.

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