Drugs, alcohol and tobacco
drugs; alcohol; cigarettes; heroin; marijuana; cannabis; speed; ecstasy; LSD; inhalants; tobacco; smoking;
In most cultures there are substances that people take to alter their minds or body functions. Some of these are legal and accepted, others are illegal. This topic looks at why people use drugs and alcohol, and their effects on health. We give some tips for people who want to change their drug use.
You need to check the laws where you live. There are laws about selling drugs, using drugs and the age you can use legal drugs in most countries.
A drug is any chemical that is not food and that affects your body. Drugs can be medicines such as antibiotics and painkillers. However, when young people talk about drugs they are usually referring to those that affect the mind - and this topic is mainly about those kinds of drugs.
Drugs are described in different ways. People use words like 'soft', 'hard', 'upper' and 'downer'. Grouping them can help make sense of what they do to us.
- Stimulant (upper) - Stimulants speed up the brain and central nervous system. Examples are caffeine (in coffee, tea, cola drinks and energy drinks) nicotine (in cigarettes), amphetamines (speed, dexamphetamine, diet pills), cocaine, and ecstasy.
- Depressant (downer) - Depressants slow down the brain and central nervous system. Examples are alcohol (beer, wine, vodka, gin, etc.), marijuana/cannabis ('dope', 'grass', 'weed', etc.), fantasy, heroin, tranquillisers and anti-anxiety drugs (including sleeping pills).
- Hallucinogen (psychedelic) - These drugs alter the user's state of consciousness, and include drugs such as LSD ('acid', or 'trips'), ecstasy, magic mushrooms, datura and marijuana/cannabis.
The most commonly used drugs in many countries, including Australia, are alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs. Alcohol and tobacco are also the biggest killers. Marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug.
People use drugs for different reasons and at different levels, but most would realise that there are health risks with using any drug. Here are some general harms that can arise with drugs.
- Injuries and accidents - Lots of people who go to emergency departments at hospitals have taken a drug, often alcohol. Drug-related injuries can come from things like fights, falling over, operating machinery at work, car accidents, or even falling off a skateboard.
- Damage to body organs - Heavy use of many drugs can hurt the liver. The brain, lungs, throat and stomach can be damaged by drug use too.
- Risk of infectious disease - Sharing needles from injecting drugs is a major risk for getting diseases like Hepatitis C or B or HIV, which are spread through blood-to-blood transmission. You can also catch other infections from sharing things like pipes or bongs (eg. colds, glandular fever).
- Psychosis - A number of drugs can trigger psychosis, which is a mental illness where a person loses touch with reality.
- Depression - Feeling low after using some drugs (including alcohol) is common - this could be due to the drug itself or because of things that happened while using. People sometimes use drugs more when they are depressed.
- Stress - Some people think that using certain drugs will help them relax and forget about the things they are causing them stress. However, changing the way the body and mind work with drugs is a stress in itself, and users can experience tension, anxiety, paranoia and other symptoms which only add to the feelings of stress.
- Relationship problems - Conflict between friends and partners, and family breakdown are more common when drug use is ongoing.
- Violence - Drugs and alcohol do not cause violence, although their use can make the problems that cause violence much worse. Violence is illegal, and is a choice just like using drugs or alcohol.
- Dependence - Many people become dependent on a drug, which means that they feel that they can't function without it, they spend a lot of their time and energy finding and using the drug, and they might have withdrawal symptoms when they stop using it. They might also need to take increasing amounts to get the same effects.
- Safety - Getting drunk (or 'stoned') and out of control can make you less safe. Scoring drugs or trying to get the money to buy them can also put a person at risk of harm.
- Job loss - Drug use (and the 'hangover' effect) reduces a person's ability to work in a job, and reduces their chances of getting a job (see our topic 'Unemployment').
- Financial Pressures - Using alcohol and other drugs can be a costly business! In the worst cases, funding a habit can lead to crime, or losing everything on gambling.
- Homelessness - This can result from not being able to pay rent or getting 'kicked out' of home. (See the topic 'Housing/homelessness').
- Legal issues - Court, jail time or hefty fines are associated with using or selling illicit drugs, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or committing crimes as a results of using drugs (see the topic 'Police, courts and crime').
When I first started my job I tried to keep up with my old lifestyle of going out and getting off my face any day of the week. This meant I went to work the next day with a massive hangover. One day I had to keep going to the toilet to throw up. It was heaps hard to concentrate and I couldn't do my job properly. That was when I decided I had to stop or it would soon be the end of my job!
- Amy, 24 years
people use them
People choose to use drugs (including legal ones like coffee, cigarettes, beers, etc.) for lots of reasons. Here is what some young people have said:
- "I wanted to try it out".
- "I wanted to rebel against what I was told not to do".
- "I wanted to show my parents that they couldn't stop me".
- "I wanted to block out things that happened in my life".
- "I felt I could show people I was tough and I can hack it".
- "I was just there and drugs were offered to me, so I thought 'why not?'"
- "If I don't have it I start to get withdrawals or feel irritable".
Of course the safest thing is not to use drugs! If you choose to use a drug, you can reduce the harms of that drug. Here are some general tips to keep safe.
- It is your choice, not someone else's! Don't feel pressured into using any drug (including alcohol, cigarettes or illegal drugs).
- Find out about it first. Do some research and know what you are taking and what the effects are likely to be - see our topics in the Drugs and alcohol section.
- Injecting drugs is always a health risk - never share injecting equipment with anyone.
- Never try to drive or operate machinery after taking a drug.
- Don't be pressured into taking more of a drug because others are doing it - if you feel you've had enough, stop.
- If someone collapses, get help urgently - call an ambulance. Give the ambulance staff and doctors honest information about any drugs taken.
Here are some things you can do if you choose not to use drugs or alcohol.
- Stay away from places where they know people will be using.
- Exercise your right to make your own choices. See our topic 'Assertiveness'.
- Say things like:
- "Cheers, but not for me thanks"
- "I'm cutting back"
- "I can't tonight, I'm driving"
- Get into things that give you a natural good feeling.
drugs take over your life
Sometimes people notice that drug use starts to take over their life. Here are some tips to help get your life back.
- List all the things that you do or are important in your life - personal interests, social activities, work and financial matters, relationships, etc.
- Next to them, make a list of how your drug use has an effect on these areas.
- What are the reasons you use? What do you get out of using your drug? What are the not so good things about using? How might you life look if you continue in this way?
- List the advantages for your life and your future if you made some changes.
- Think about what changes you would like to make. What's the most realistic - quitting or cutting back?
- Make a plan. What are you trying to achieve? How are you going to achieve it? Who or what might help? What steps will you take? How will you know when you have achieved what you set out to do?
- Make a commitment to yourself. Set a date. Tell people what you are planning to do. Try to find people who are supportive of your changes.
- Stick to your plan and celebrate when you achieve your goals.
- Don't give yourself a hard time if it doesn't work out the first time. Try again.
- Speak to your local drug and alcohol counsellor or community health worker for support or further information.
- If you experience withdrawals, or you think you are dependent, speak to your doctor or drug service for information.
about your buddy?
It can be a difficult to see your friends or family members using drugs.
Below are a few ideas that might help you with your friend's drug use.
- Accept that you can't change someone else's behaviour. They are the only ones who can decide to change.
- Keep yourself safe. Tell someone you trust what is going on and how you feel about it. Talk to someone who you think might be able to help you.
- Find out about the drug they are using. Perhaps you could give them some information about what their drug is and how it can affect them.
- Try not to be too judgemental about what they do.
- Tell them what you are worried about. Try not to blame or put them or other people down.
- Inform them of the things they can do to try to keep as safe as possible.
- Be true to yourself. Make your own choices and make sure you can continue your life in a positive way that you want!
Some forms of drug use are illegal in most countries. Check the laws where you live. Some legal consequences of drug use are:
- fines or expiation fees (ie. on-the-spot fines)
- court appearances
- jail - remand or custody
- community service
- treatment orders
- a criminal record - if you have one, it can be difficult to get some jobs, and you won't be allowed to travel to some countries.
If you sell, supply, manufacture or grow any illegal drug, you can expect very harsh penalties.
- The Second Story Youth Health Service (TSS)
- Central: 57 Hyde St, Adelaide
- South: 50a Beach Rd, Christies Beach
- North: 6 Gillingham Rd, Elizabeth
- West: 51 Bower St, Woodville
- Youth Healthline Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm 1300 13 17 19
- Drug and Alcohol Services South Australia - Alcohol and Drug Information Service
(ADIS) - 24 hour statewide line - Tel: 13 1340
- Aboriginal Drug and Alcohol Council (SA) Inc - Tel: (08) 8362 0395.
- Your local Community Health Centre - check the Phone Book for one near you.
- Your local doctor or hospital.
- Your school, workplace, college or university counsellor.
- Your local police station.
- Australian Drug Information Network
The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Youth Healthline on 1300 13 17 19 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).