Heroin is an illegal and highly addictive drug processed from morphine. For many years, it has been touted as the most addictive drug on the planet, but other drugs like cocaine and alcohol could be considered just as addictive—if not more addictive—than heroin. Let’s delve into how these drugs affect the brain and how the addictive factors are measured.

History of Heroin

To better understand heroin, it’s worth mentioning a little bit about its history and how it came to be considered the most addictive drug. Opium, the first opioid, is derived from the sap of opium poppies. The growth of this plant dates back to the times of ancient civilization of Mesopotamia as far back as 3400 B.C. The Persian and Egyptian people originally used opium, and it spread around to China, India, and some portions of Europe.

In the 18th century, physicians used the drug as a means of relief from pain that included cancer, menstruation, and childbirth. At this point, there was not much known about the potency or potential for addiction. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century when the addiction factor became known.

We need to fast forward to 1874 to see the transition of opium blossom into what we know as heroin. An English chemist from Bayer Pharmaceutical Company began commercially producing heroin. This process was done as an alternative to morphine due to the problems of morphine abuse.

Unfortunately, heroin was found to be highly addictive as well and was eventually classified as an illegal drug in the United States. Heroin comes from areas of Southeast Asia and Mexico and is usually sold as a white or brown powder or as a black sticky substance known as black tar heroin. This form of the drug indicates its Mexican origin. Today, though, heroin can be laced with anything from sugar to fentanyl. The uncertainty makes it even more dangerous.

The United States has been through a few major heroin epidemics. The first was immediately after World War II began, and another that started in the late 1960s. Heroin began to vanish due to higher prices, but this all began to change in the 1990s with the rise of prescription opioids. Drugs like OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percocet all began to emerge as commonly used painkillers in what most would consider routine medical procedures. This emergence of prescription opioids stemmed from pharmaceutical representatives and their assurances the drugs were not addictive. Doctors listened and began prescribing these medications without any apprehension, creating another epidemic.

What makes a drug addictive and let alone the most addictive? The answer depends on your physiology or predisposition to addiction. These factors change what drug could be more addictive, but does heroin trump this? Is heroin the most addictive drug? Many factors influence how addictive a drug is. This can range from intoxication, reinforcement, tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal.

The Most Addictive Illegal Drugs

Several factors contribute to a drug being referenced as the most addictive. There is a lack of definitive ranking when it comes to drug dependency, but addiction specialists have attempted to make a list. There has been much debate about which drugs should be classified. Addiction is marked by compulsive substance-seeking behavior, a growing tolerance to drugs or alcohol and the presence of withdrawal symptoms upon sudden cessation.

There are different aspects that researchers use to rate how addictive a drug may be. These include how the drug activates the brain’s dopamine system, how pleasurable the drug is reported to be, the level in which the drug causes withdrawal symptoms, how quickly someone can become hooked on the drug, how much physical or cognitive harm can occur from

using the drug, and the street value of the drug. These findings can be beneficial for addiction treatment and when the teams create relapse prevention plans with their client. These findings will help specialists with the additional factors that must be overcome in addiction.

This is a list of some of the most addictive illegal drugs in no particular order:


Alcohol addiction can result in fatal consequences if left untreated. These consequences can include jail time if someone were to drive drunk and injure someone else, or it can mean dying from causes related to alcohol. If you are older than age 21 in the United States, you won’t find much trouble purchasing alcohol anywhere. From grocery to liquor stores, the readily available substance can spell disaster for someone with a substance use disorder. With some bottles of hard alcohol going for below $10, it is understood why alcohol addiction is so hard to beat.

Someone stuck in the cycle of addiction will find alcohol very difficult to stop on their own. This can range from seeing a billboard or commercial that increases their desire to drink, or the dangerous withdrawal symptoms that come from long-term abuse. Quitting alcohol is difficult and downright dangerous. All of these factors make alcohol one of the most addictive drugs, but is it the most addictive?


Celebrities glamorized cocaine as a party drug in the 1980s, but its reputation has followed all the way until recent times. An estimated 14-20 million people around the world use cocaine. This makes the drug a billion-dollar illegal industry. Cocaine reacts with the brain’s dopamine levels and prevents neurons from turning the “feel good” signal off. Using the drug results in an abnormal activation in the brain’s reward pathway. Studies find that upward of 21 percent of people who use cocaine will eventually become addicted. That number is relatively low in comparison to other addictive drugs.


Heroin meets all of the criteria listed above with regard to what makes a drug addictive. It changes the reward pathways in the brain, it’s reported to be euphoric and pleasurable, it causes intense withdrawals, and it is found very cheap in some areas. Opioid use often stems from taking prescription opioids before developing into a full-blown heroin addiction. An estimated 13.5 million people take opioids with an estimated 9.2 million who actively use heroin. Opioids belong to a $4-billion industry and account for 18 percent of admission into drug and alcohol treatment. Is this enough to classify heroin as the most addictive drug?

What Is The Most Addictive Drug?

When it comes to illegal drugs, heroin is the clear front-runner when comparing elements of addiction in different drugs. Heroin is classified as a Schedule I drug, meaning it has an extremely high potential of dependence and abuse. In some cases, it can be addictive after a single use. Your body can become tolerant to heroin rapidly, which will continue to want more every time you use it. The euphoric effects can diminish with each use and heroin will depress life-sustaining processes such as breathing as the dose increases. These factors all increase the likelihood of an overdose.

Once someone has developed an addiction to heroin, they can find stopping to be painful and downright nasty. These severe symptoms can begin within hours of the last dose and feel like the flu. Withdrawal is uncomfortable and can be associated with complications like depressed mood.

Due to these factors, it can push someone to relapse. Heroin is exceptionally difficult to quit, and many former drug users will still have cravings years after stopping. All of these reasons make heroin the most addictive drug on this planet. If you or someone you love is dealing with heroin addiction, there are options to consider for help.

Heroin Statistics

  • Heroin use has increased in recent years among men and women, most age groups, and all income levels.
  • In 2013, more than nine in 10 people who used heroin also used at least one other drug.
  • Among new heroin users during 2000 to 2013, about three out of four report having misused prescription opioids before using heroin.
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