It is usually difficult to ‘prove’ drug or alcohol use when a loved one won’t come clean and tell you – you may have to ask them directly, but such a conversation needs to be conducted carefully. Try not to be judgemental or make accusations and before you tackle the subject:
- Inform yourself about different drugs and how to talk about them – you can use the information below for the basics and our links page for more information
- Consider your motives and what it means to you if they are using drugs/alcohol – are you worried about their safety? How it is affecting their behaviour or lifestyle?
- Try to adopt an attitude of caring curiosity when having a conversation about drugs/alcohol, especially if you are discussing it for the first time.
Heroin is a natural opiate made from morphine (opiates dull pain). Morphine is extracted from the opium poppy. Like many drugs made from opium, including synthetic opioids (e.g. methadone) heroin is a very strong painkiller. ‘Street’ heroin sold as ‘brown’ is sometimes used by clubbers as a chill out after a big night out. Brown is still heroin but some people mistakenly think it’s not as addictive.
Heroin slows down body functioning and substantially reduces physical and psychological pain. Most users get a rush or buzz a few minutes after taking it. A small dose of heroin gives the user a feeling of warmth and well-being. Bigger doses can make the user sleepy and very relaxed. The first dose of heroin can bring about dizziness and vomiting.
Heroin is highly addictive. Over time, effects of heroin on the brain cause ‘craving’ and a strong psychological desire to keep on using. Also tolerance builds and the desired effects reduce so much that users have to take more just to get the same effects and even more just to feel ‘normal’ or to avoid a very unpleasant withdrawal state.
Deaths from overdoses occur. But the risk increases if the drug has not been taken for some time because the body’s tolerance for the drug goes down. Overdoses can lead to coma and death from respiratory failure (i.e. when breathing stops). If heroin is taken with other drugs, including alcohol, overdose is more likely. Other downers such as benzodiazepine tranquillisers are also associated with heroin overdose deaths. There’s also a risk of death due to inhaling vomit as heroin stops the body’s cough reflex working properly.
Injecting heroin will do nasty damage to your veins and can lead to gangrene (death and decay of body tissue) which in turn will lead to losing a limb. The risks of sharing needles and other works to inject are well-known, putting you in danger of infections like hepatitis B or C and HIV/AIDS.
Cocaine is a crystalline tropane alkaloid that is obtained from the leaves of the coca plant. It is both a stimulant of the central nervous system and an appetite suppressant, giving rise to what has been described as a euphoric sense of happiness and increased energy. It is most often used recreationally for this effect. Cocaine is a potent central nervous system stimulant. Its effects can last from 20 minutes to several hours, depending upon the dosage of cocaine taken, purity, and method of administration. The initial signs of stimulation are hyperactivity, restlessness, increased blood pressure, increased heart rate and euphoria. The euphoria is sometimes followed by feelings of discomfort and depression and a craving to experience the drug again. Sexual interest and pleasure can be amplified. Side effects can include twitching, paranoia, and impotence, which usually increases with frequent usage.
Methamphetamine (Crystal Meth)
Methamphetamine (real name Methylamphetamine), popularly shortened to meth or ice, is a psychostimulant and sympathomimetic drug. Methamphetamine enters the brain and triggers a cascading release of norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin. Since it stimulates the mesolimbic reward pathway, causing euphoria and excitement, it is prone to abuse and addiction. Users may become obsessed or perform repetitive tasks such as cleaning, hand-washing, or assembling and disassembling objects. Withdrawal is characterised by excessive sleeping, eating and depression-like symptoms, often accompanied by anxiety and drug-craving.
The drug can cause a rapid heart rate and a rise in blood pressure. The higher the dose, the greater these effects. Other acute effects include agitation, paranoia, confusion and violence. Methylamphetamine-induced psychosis has been widely reported in countries where there’s epidemic use. Psychosis is a serious mental state where you lose touch with a sense of reality. There is some evidence of long-term brain changes that may gradually improve after sustained abstinence. In cases of overdose – stroke, and lung, kidney and gastrointestinal damage can develop, and coma and death can occur. Methylamphetamine use can be associated with injecting and with sharing of paraphernalia with attendant risks of HIV and hepatitis virus infections.
The process of turning cocoa leaf into cocaine hydrochloride involves adding hydrochloric acid to the chemical mixture to form a hydrochloride salt ‘base’. Crack cocaine, known as stone, rock, or white, is made from cocaine hydrochloride powder by removing this hydrochloride base. This is why it is sometimes called cocaine freebase. The name ‘crack’ comes from the crackling sound it makes when heated and smoked.
Crack rocks are crystalline, but can vary in appearance from a hard, brittle pure-white chip, to a soapy off-white to yellow lump. The former kind is usually a higher purity product, with the latter kind often being the produce of more amateur crack makers – i.e. its appearance is due to adulterants and impurities.
Lysergic acid diethylamide, LSD, LSD-25, or acid, is a semisynthetic psychedelic drug of the tryptamine family. Arguably the most regarded of all psychedelics, it is considered mainly as a recreational drug, an entheogen, and a tool in use to supplement various types of exercises for transcendence including in meditation, psychonautics, and illegal psychedelic psychotherapy whether self administered or not. LSD’s psychological effects (colloquially called a “trip”) vary greatly from person to person, depending on factors such as previous experiences, state of mind and environment, as well as dose strength. They also vary from one trip to another, and even as time passes during a single trip. An LSD trip can have long term psychoemotional effects; some users cite the LSD experience as causing significant changes in their personality and life perspective. Widely different effects emerge based on what Leary called set and setting; the “set” being the general mindset of the user, and the “setting” being the physical and social environment in which the drug’s effects are experienced.
Ecstasy (MDMA) is a semisynthetic psychedelic entactogen of the phenethylamine family that is much less visual with more stimulant like effects than most all other common “trip” producing psychedelics. It is considered mainly a recreational drug that’s often used with sex and associated with club drugs, as an entheogen, and a tool in use to supplement various types of practices for transcendence including in meditation, psychonautics, and illicit psychedelic psychotherapy whether self administered or not. The primary effects of MDMA include an increased awareness of the senses, feelings of openness, euphoria, empathy, love, happiness, heightened self-awareness, feeling of mental clarity and an increased appreciation of music and movement. Tactile sensations are enhanced for some users, making physical contact with others more pleasurable.
Physical side effects can develop that include: dilated pupils, a tingling feeling, tightening of the jaw muscles, raised body temperature and the heart beats faster. Short-term effects of use can include anxiety, panic attacks, confused episodes and paranoid or psychotic states. There’s no way of telling what’s in an E until you’ve swallowed it. So, there may be negative side effects from other ingredients in the tablet. E’s can make users feel a bit down after use.
There’ve been over 200 ecstasy-related deaths in the UK since 1996. Ecstasy use is the cause of death in many of the cases but there have been some involving other substances sold as Ecstasy e.g. PMA. Using Ecstasy has been linked to liver, kidney and heart problems. Anyone using too much can become paranoid and depressed.
Drinking too much can also be dangerous or even fatal. Ecstasy can cause the body to release a hormone which prevents the production of urine. Drink too quickly and it interferes with your body’s salt balance, which can be as deadly as not drinking enough water.
Some long-term users report getting colds, flu and sore throats more often. This may be attributed to staying awake for 24 hours, which puts your immune system under pressure.
Anyone with a heart condition, blood pressure problems, epilepsy or asthma can have a very dangerous reaction to the drug.
Cannabis, known as marijuana in its herbal form, is a psychoactive product of the plant Cannabis sativa. Humans have been consuming cannabis since prehistory, although in the 20th century there was a rise in its use for recreational, religious or spiritual, and medicinal purposes. It is estimated that about four percent of the world’s adult population use cannabis annually. It has psychoactive and physiological effects when consumed, usually by smoking or ingestion. The main active compound in cannabis is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The minimum amount of THC required to have a perceptible psychoactive effect is about 10 micrograms per kilogram of body weight. The state of intoxication due to cannabis consumption is colloquially known as a “high”; it is the state where mental and physical facilities are noticeably altered due to the consumption of cannabis. Each user experiences a different high, and the nature of it may vary upon factors such as potency, dose, chemical composition, method of consumption and set and setting.
Hash is a black or brown lump made from the resin of the plant. It’s quite often squidgy. In the past, this was the commonest form of cannabis in the UK, but this is no longer the case. Much less common is cannabis oil, made by separating the resin from the cannabis plant using various solvents. It is a sticky, dark honey-coloured oil. Herbal cannabis (grass or weed) is made from the dried leaves and flowering parts of the female plant and looks like tightly packed dried herbs.
Recently, there has been an increased availability of strong herbal cannabis, containing on average 2-3 times the amount of the active compound, tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, as compared to the traditional imported ‘weed’. This strong cannabis includes:‘sinsemilla’ (a bud grown in the absence of male plants and which has no seeds); ‘homegrown’; ‘skunk’, which has a characteristic strong smell; and imported ‘netherweed’. Strong cannabis is grown through processes that can include selective breeding, use of hydroponics and special heating and lighting techniques.
Most people mix cannabis with tobacco and smoke it as a spliff or a joint. Some people put it in a bong or a type of pipe. And others make tea with it or stick it in food like cakes or ‘cannabis cookies’.
Amphetamines (speed) can make people feel alert and confident, giddy and powerful – or nervous, aggressive and give them hallucinations. They increase the heart beat dramatically putting a strain on your arteries so people with high blood pressure or heart conditions are taking extra risks. Bigger amounts or overdosing can cause you to collapse, go into a coma or die. If taken with anti-depressants or alcohol, this can cause fatal effects. Speed can also suppress your appetite as amphetamines used to be the main ingredient in diet pills because it stops you feeling hungry.
Taking speed can make it difficult to relax or sleep and the come down can make users feel irritable and depressed, lasting for one or two days. Pure amphetamine is a white power (sometimes grey or pink) and tastes bitter. People use it by injecting, smoking, sniffing or mostly taking it orally in powder form. Crystal meth (methamphetamine) is a particularly powerful, addictive and dangerous form of speed.
GHB and GBL
GHB is a man-made anaesthetic drug which has been popular in the club scene since the mid 1990’s. Although often referred to as Liquid E, it is nothing like ecstasy and the effects are very different. It often comes as a clear liquid that tastes very slightly salty but can also come in powder form that is dissolved in liquid.
The effects can be similar to alcohol, making you confident, happy and relaxed, however too much will make you dizzy, sick, confused and wobbly. Way too much will totally knock you out. GBL (gammabutyrolactone) converts to GHB shortly after entering the body. GBL and GHB have much the same effects. Both can kill you and are particularly dangerous when used with alcohol and other depressant or sedative substances including recreational drugs.
GHB has been used in ‘date rapes’. You can’t taste GHB in drinks and a strong dose can put you right out and leave you open to sexual assault.
Ketamine is a powerful general anaesthetic which depresses the nervous system and causes a temporary loss of body sensation. That’s why it has been used for operating on humans and animals alike. You may have heard many people refer to it as a horse tranquilliser. It has powerful hallucinogenic qualities and also reduces bodily sensations leaving a user as if the mind and body have been separated.
Ketamine is addictive psychologically but not physically, but as tolerance levels increase, you may need to take more to achieve the same effect. There are no withdrawal effects when stopping its use.
Legal Ketamine is supplied in liquid form which is used for injecting, not humans but horses. Illegal and street versions usually come as a white powder which is usually snorted. Illegally produced tablets are also commonly found with other impurities added.
In large doses Ketamine can make mental health problems worse and cause panic attacks and depression. As it is a depressant it can also dangerously suppress breathing and heart functions which can lead to unconsciousness and death.
Methadone is one of a number of man-made opiates (also called opioids) developed for medical use in the treatment of heroin addiction. Methadone and Subutex (a similar alternative) are sedative drugs that depress the nervous system. They slow down body functioning and reduce physical and psychological pain. The effect is usually to give a feeling of warmth, relaxation and detachment.
Heroin injectors who are not in methadone treatment are around 11 times more likely to die than those who are in treatment!
Methadone takes a few days to build up in your system at the start of treatment, so don’t expect it to work instantly. The overdose risks are higher if people take methadone and drink alcohol within a few hours of each other. Although it doesn’t feel like heroin, it is powerful stuff and drinking or using other drugs (especially when you start treatment) can cause an overdose.
Some methadone overdoses happen to people who have bought methadone from someone in treatment. As little as 40mg of methadone can kill an adult who doesn’t have a tolerance: so if you are prescribed methadone, take care of it, and make sure no one else can take it.
Poppers are small bottles filled with liquid chemicals called Alkyl Nitrates. There are different types of poppers – amyl nitrate, butyl nitrate and isobutyl nitrite. They are sniffed usually sniffed straight from the bottle and provide a short, sharp high or head rush that is all over in a matter of minutes. Often sold in sex shops and clubs as room aromas or deodorisers. Some people use poppers during sex and say it enhances orgasm. It can be dangerous if used in combination with Viagra (or similar products) as the combination can drop the blood pressure beyond a safe point. Poppers are very poisonous and can be fatal if swallowed. They are also highly flammable and even a small amount of liquid on the skin can burn and irritate.
Tranquillisers like Valium and Ativan make you slow down, relax and chill. You might yawn a lot and feel drowsy. Sleeping pills, like Temazepam, are a bit stronger but tend to wear off more quickly. Tranquillisers are man-made drugs, used to medically treat anxiety, epilepsy and sleeplessness. There are hundreds of different types around but most common are Benzodiazepines. They are usually taken orally.
Tranquillisers are a difficult habit to break. You can become both psychologically and physically addicted. If you take them regularly you will develop a tolerance to them so that you need more to get the same effect. Withdrawal symptoms are pretty nasty. People get anxious, sick, sleepless, restless, grouchy and develop banging headaches. Occasionally people have epileptic fits when they stop taking. You can overdose on tranquillisers especially if you are using them with alcohol. A number of people have died after injecting Temazepam as getting the dose right is very difficult to judge.