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Drugs and their effects AUSTRALIAN DRUG FOUNDATION


What is a drug? A drug can be defined as any substance, other than food, which is taken to change the way the body and/or mind function.

Mood-altering drugs are also called psychoactive drugs. They can change or affect the way a person thinks, feels or acts. These drugs usually have physical effects as well, but what sets them apart from other drugs is that they work on the mind and the senses.

Some drugs, such as alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and various prescribed and over-the-counter medications, are legal. Most legal drugs are restricted and their availability, quality and price strictly controlled. Other drugs, such as cannabis, amphetamines, ecstasy, cocaine and heroin, are illegal. They are not subject to quality or price controls. This means that a person can never be sure of the drug’s strength or purity (what is in it). Different batches of an illegally manufactured drug may have different amounts of the drug and other additives.


This pamphlet is part of the “How Drugs Affect You� series. It aims to provide the facts about drugs for anyone interested in understanding more about drugs and their effects. It has been written for the general public, including employees, employers, health professionals and their clients. Other titles in this series include, alcohol, amphetamines, analgesics, benzodiazepines, cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy, GHB, hallucinogens, heroin, ice, inhalants, ketamine and tobacco.

Drug use in Australia According to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey1, in 2010:

»» 87.9 per cent of Australians aged 14 years and older had consumed alcohol at some stage in their life

»» 42.2 per cent had used tobacco »» 39.8 per cent had used an illicit drug.

The types of illicit drugs ever used by Australians in 20101 included: 35.4% Cannabis/marijuana 0.4% Steroids (non medical use) 0.4% Methadone or buprenorphine (no maintenance or treatment) 0.8% Gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB)

1.4% Heroin 3.8% Inhalants 4.8% Analgesics/painkillers (non medical use) 7.3% Cocaine 7.0% Amphetamines /methamphetamines (non medical use) 8.8% Hallucinogens

10.3% Ecstasy

1.0% Opiates/opioids other than heroin, buprenorphine and methadone (non medical Use) 1.4% Ketamine

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2011 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey: Report, Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.


Why do people use drugs? People use drugs to relax, to function, for enjoyment, to be part of a group, out of curiosity or to avoid physical and/or psychological pain. Drug use is influenced by a number of factors. Most people use drugs because they want to feel better or different. They use drugs for the benefits (perceived and/or experienced), not for the potential harm. This applies to both legal and illegal drugs. Types of drug use have been characterised in the following way:

»» Experimental use: a person tries

a drug once or twice out of curiosity.

»» Recreational use: a person chooses

to use a drug for enjoyment, particularly to enhance a mood or social occasion.

»» Situational use: a drug is used to cope

with the demands of particular situations.

»» Intensive use (also known as “bingeing”): a person consumes a heavy amount of drugs over a short period of time, and/or uses continuously over a number of days or weeks.

»» Dependent use: a person becomes dependent on a drug after prolonged or heavy use over time. They feel a need to take the drug consistently in order to feel normal or to avoid uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.

People can move between categories, and one stage does not inevitably lead to the next. Harms associated with drug use can occur in all types of use.

Effects of drugs The effects of any drug vary from person to person. How a drug affects a person depends on many things including their size, weight and health, also whether the person is used to taking it and whether other drugs are taken around the same time. The effects of any drug also depend on the amount taken. This can be very hard to judge as the quality and strength of illicit drugs can vary greatly from one batch to another.

Types of drugs and their effects Drugs can be classified according to the effect they have on the central nervous system (CNS)—and the way they change how a person thinks, feels or perceives. The three major classifications are depressants, stimulants and hallucinogens. Depressants Depressant drugs slow down the activity of the CNS and the messages going between the brain and the body. They do not necessarily make a person feel depressed. Depressants affect concentration and coordination. They slow down a person’s ability to respond to unexpected situations. In small doses they can cause a person to feel more relaxed and less inhibited. In larger doses they may cause drowsiness, vomiting, unconsciousness and death. Depressant drugs include alcohol, benzodiazepines (minor tranquillisers), cannabis, GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate), opioids (including heroin, morphine, codeine and methadone), and some solvents and inhalants.

Brain » difficulty concentrating » drowsiness » unconsciousness

Muscles and nervous system » reduced coordination » slow reaction time

Stomach » nausea and vomiting

Psychological effects » lowered inhibitions » feel relaxed

Stimulants Stimulant drugs speed up the messages going between the brain and the body. They can make a person feel more awake, alert, confident or energetic. Large doses of stimulants can “over-stimulate” a person, causing anxiety, panic, seizures, headaches, stomach cramps, aggression and paranoia. Long-term use of strong stimulants can also cause these effects. Stimulant drugs include caffeine, ephedrine, nicotine, amphetamines, cocaine and ecstasy (MDMA, methylenedioxymethamphetamine).

Brain » feel more awake and alert » headaches Eyes dilated pupils

Heart » increased heart rate and blood pressure

Stomach » reduced appetite » stomach cramps

Body » increased temperature » increased strength and energy Psychological effects » increased confidence » talkativeness » sleep disturbances

» agitation, anxiety and panic » aggression and paranoia

Hallucinogens Hallucinogens distort a person’s perception of reality. People who have taken them may imagine they see or hear things or what they see may be distorted. The effects of hallucinogens vary greatly. Hallucinogenic drugs include datura, ketamine, LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), magic mushrooms (psilocybin) and mescaline (peyote cactus). Cannabis and ecstasy can also have hallucinogenic qualities.

Eyes dilated pupils Body sweating Stomach » reduced appetite » stomach cramps » nausea Psychological effects » increased activity, talking or laughing » feelings of euphoria and wellbeing » hallucinations and distorted sensory processing, including visual, auditory, bodily, time and space perception » panic and paranoia » loss of contact with reality, irrational or bizarre behaviour

Long-term effects Using any drug over time can affect both a person’s physical and mental health. People may also become both psychologically and physically dependent on the drug.

Tolerance and dependence People who use a drug regularly can develop dependence and tolerance to it. Tolerance means they need to take larger amounts of the drug to get the same effect. Dependence on a drug can be psychological, physical, or both. People who are dependent on a drug find that using the drug becomes far more important than other activities in their life. They crave the drug and find it very difficult to stop using it. People who are psychologically dependent on a drug may find they feel an urge to use it when they are in specific surroundings or socialising with friends. Physical dependence occurs when a person’s body adapts to a drug and gets used to functioning with the drug present. Withdrawal If a dependent person stops taking a drug, they may experience withdrawal symptoms and cravings because their body has to get used to functioning without the drug. If a person is withdrawing from alcohol or benzodiazepines they should seek advice from a health professional. There is a risk that a person withdrawing from these drugs may experience seizures.

Drugs and driving It is dangerous to drive after using drugs. The effects of drugs can affect driving ability. People under the influence of drugs may take more risks when driving, which increases the chance of an accident. For example, cannabis can cause concentration to wander, which can affect the reaction time needed to drive safely. The symptoms of coming down and withdrawal can also affect a person’s ability to drive safely.

Drugs and the workplace Under occupational health and safety legislation, all employees have a responsibility to make sure they look after their own and their co-workers’ safety. The effects of drugs, and the symptoms of coming down and withdrawal, can affect a person’s ability to work safely and effectively. For example, attending work with a hangover can affect a person’s ability to concentrate and increase the risk of an accident.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding Many drugs can cross the placenta and affect an unborn child. In general, using a drug when pregnant can increase the chances of going into labour early. This can mean that babies are born below the normal birth weight. If a mother uses a drug while breastfeeding, the drug may be present in her breast milk. This may have an effect on the health of the baby. Check with your doctor or other health professional if you are taking or planning to take any drugs during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.

Polydrug use Polydrug use is when a person uses more than one drug at the same time. Using more than one drug can increase or change the effects of each drug—often in unpredictable ways. For example, the chance of overdose increases when two depressants such as GHB and alcohol are taken together.

Drugs and social problems All areas of a person’s life can be affected by drug use.

»» Disagreements and frustration over drug use can

cause family arguments and affect personal relationships.

»» Legal and health problems can also add to the strain on personal, financial and work relationships.

Drugs and the law Federal and state laws provide penalties for possessing, using, making, selling or driving under the influence of illicit drugs. Penalties can include fines, imprisonment and disqualification from driving. Some states and territories have programs that refer people with a drug problem to treatment and/or education programs where they can receive help rather than going through the criminal justice system.

There are also laws that apply to alcohol, tobacco, prescription and over-the-counter medications. For example, it is against the law for a person under 18 years of age to purchase alcohol and tobacco products. For more information, contact a legal aid service in your state or territory.

Treatment options In Australia, there are many different treatment options for drug problems. Some aim to help a person to stop using a drug, while others aim to reduce the risks and harm related to their drug use. Treatment is more effective if adapted to suit each person’s situation. Some of the different options include individual counselling, group therapy, medication (pharmacotherapy), residential therapy and supervised/home withdrawal.

Preventing and reducing harms Many Australians take at least one psychoactive drug on a regular basis— they might take medication (i.e. over-the -counter or via a prescription), drink alcohol, smoke tobacco or use an illegal drug. All drugs have the potential to cause harm. As use increases, so does the potential for harm. Australia’s national drug policy is based on harm minimisation. Strategies to minimise harm include encouraging people to avoid using a drug through to helping people to reduce the risk of harm if they do use a drug. It aims to reduce all types of drug-related harm to both the individual and the community.

There is no safe level of drug use Use of any drug always carries some risk—even medications can produce unwanted side effects. It is important to be careful when taking any type of drug.

What to do if you are concerned about someone’s drug use If you are concerned about someone else’s drug use, there is confidential help available. Contact the alcohol and drug information service in your state or territory. The telephone numbers are listed on the back of this pamphlet.

What to do in a crisis If someone overdoses or has an adverse reaction while using a drug, it is very important that they receive professional help as soon as possible. A quick response can save their life.

»» Call an ambulance. Dial 000. Ambulance officers are not obliged to involve the police.

»» Stay with the person until the ambulance arrives.

Find out if anyone at the scene knows cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

»» Ensure that the person has adequate air by keeping

crowds back and opening windows. Loosen tight clothing.

»» If the person is unconscious, don’t leave them on their back—they could choke. Turn them on their side and into the recovery position. Gently tilt their head back so their tongue does not block the airway.

»» If breathing has stopped, apply CPR. »» Provide the ambulance officers with as much information as you can—such as which drugs were taken, how much, how long ago and any pre-existing medical conditions.

For further tips on how to reduce the risks of using drugs, call the alcohol and drug information service in your state or territory. The telephone numbers are listed on the back of this pamphlet.

For information, counselling or other assistance, contact the alcohol and other drug service in your state or territory.

ACT (02) 6207 9977

Tas. 1800 811 994

NSW (02) 9361 8000 (Sydney) 1800 422 599 (NSW)

Vic. 1300 85 85 84 (information)

NT 1800 131 350

QLD 1800 177 833 SA

1300 131 340

1800 888 236 (counselling)

WA (08) 9442 5000 (Perth) 1800 198 024 (WA)

Produced by the Australian Drug Foundation Š 2011. Celebrating more than 50 years of service to the community, the Australian Drug Foundation is Australia’s leading body committed to preventing alcohol and other drug problems in communities around the nation. For further copies of this pamphlet: Post: PO Box 818 North Melbourne Vic 3051 Street: 409 King Street West Melbourne Vic 3003 Email: Web:

Drugs and their effects: How Drugs Affect You  

Comprehensive and easy to read summary of how drugs affect your body and life, includes basic information on depressants, stimulants and hal...