What It Is

Illicit drug addiction may be one of the most dangerous types of addictions. In general, illicit drugs are substances that are illegal to make, sell, or use, such as cocaine, amphetamines, heroin, or hallucinogens. Many illicit drugs are highly addictive and pose serious health risks, even when taken in small doses. This type of drug addiction usually starts as experimentation. The user tries something out of curiosity and becomes hooked on the physiological and/or psychological effects of the drug. An illicit drug addiction tends to progress more rapidly than other addictions, often requiring the user to consume increasingly higher doses of the drug to get the same effects. Without intervention, an addict will often put his health and safety—or the health and safety of others—in grave danger.

Symptoms and Signs

The effects of illicit drugs on the user will vary depending on the type of drug. However, there are mainly three categories: stimulating drugs, depressing drugs, and hallucinogenic drugs. Stimulating drugs, like cocaine or methamphetamines, tend to bring the user to a state of hyperactivity. Depressing drugs, such as heroin, tend to decrease the user’s energy level. Hallucinogenic drugs, such as marijuana, psilocybin mushrooms, or LSD, alter the user’s perception of space, time, and reality. While an illicit drug addict might mix several different substances or alternate between uppers and downers, certain behaviors or characteristics should be assessed in order to determine whether an addiction may be present:

  • Significant increase or decrease in energy level, especially if the shift is out of the ordinary or has a sudden onset
  • Aggressive behavior or violent mood swings
  • Preoccupation with getting and using the drug of choice
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Increased social activity with other users or only attending social events where the drug will be present
  • Chronic health problems or continued use of the drug despite physical health risks
  • Degradation of morals or values in order to obtain drug of choice
  • Legal or professional consequences from illicit drug use such as an arrest or loss of job

Signs of stimulant drug abuse include racing thoughts, aggressive behavior, violence, abnormally high energy levels, or mania and a deluded sense of confidence.

Symptoms of a depressant drug addiction include low energy levels, depression, lethargy, suicidal thoughts, isolating tendencies, or sleeping more than normal.

A hallucinogen addiction might be noticeable if the person has a distinct lack of attachment to reality, seems schizophrenic or manic, or has an obsession with visions, symbols, or ideas that he experiences while under the influence.

Treatment Options

Treatment for illicit drug addiction is often a complex and long-term process. In many cases, it can be difficult for the addict to stop using or to maintain sobriety without professional help. Since illicit drug use can pose dangerous health problems during the user’s period of withdrawal, it’s often necessary for an addict to be in a medically supervised environment for the first few weeks of sobriety. A combination of the following treatment options may be necessary for a recovering addict:

Inpatient Rehabilitation Program

An inpatient program is often the best start for an illicit drug addict. In this setting, he or she will be supervised and monitored by doctors and therapists to ensure personal safety. Inpatient programs can last 30 days to several months, depending on the severity of the condition.

Outpatient Rehabilitation Program

An outpatient program may work for some drug addicts. In this setting, patients attend classes at a facility but continue to live at home and attend daily activities like work.

12-Step Programs

Programs like Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Drug Addicts Anonymous (DAA) follow the same recovery method as Alcoholics Anonymous and can provide ongoing support for an addict.

Psychotherapy or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

An addict may also benefit from individual therapy. Drug addiction can often stem from deeper emotional issues that need to be dealt with in order to change self-destructive patterns.


In some cases, medication is necessary to help the addict overcome cravings or urges. Also, illicit drugs can often alter brain chemical levels, resulting in mental health conditions. These conditions can usually be managed with anti-depressants or other types of medication.


Illicit drug addiction can be one of the most difficult addictions to cure. Additionally, users may need to “hit bottom” or suffer grave consequences before they are willing to seek help. Families and friends of an addict may benefit from programs like Al-Anon, where loved ones of someone suffering from addiction can find support and resources. Treatment for the addict himself is often a multi-faceted process that can include periodic relapses. It’s important for the addict to develop a strong support system of other clean and sober individuals to help facilitate long-term recovery.


Many professional organizations have further information about illicit drug addiction and treatment options. The following resources may be helpful:

  • Narcotics Anonymous
  • Drug Addicts Anonymous
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse
  • DrugFree.org
  • American Council for Drug Education
  • National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence