Drugs: The facts
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A drug is a substance, other than food, which is taken to change the way the body and/or mind function.
Some drugs, such as alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and various prescribed and over-the-counter medications, are legal.
Other drugs such as cannabis, amphetamines, ecstasy, cocaine and heroin, are illegal. This means they cannot be subject to quality or price controls. A person using illegal drugs can never be sure of how strong the drug is, or what is actually in it.
How many people use drugs?
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.
Types of drug use
These are some of the different categories of drug use. People can move between the categories, and one stage will not inevitably lead to another.
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 or '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.
The effects of any drug vary from person to person. How a drug affects a person can depend on their size, weight and health, also whether the person is used to taking the drug, and whether other drugs are in their system at the same time.
These include alcohol, benzodiazepines (minor tranquillisers), cannabis, GHB, heroin, morphine, codeine, methadone, and some inhalants.
These include caffeine, ephedrine, nicotine, amphetamines, cocaine and ecstasy (MDMA).
Large doses of stimulants can cause over-stimulation, causing anxiety, panic, seizures, headaches, stomach cramps, aggression and paranoia. Long-term use of strong stimulants can also cause these effects.
These include ketamine, LSD, datura, magic mushrooms (psilobycin) and mescaline (peyote cactus). Cannabis and ecstasy can also have hallucinogenic qualities.
Other effects of drug use
Many drugs can cross the placenta and affect the unborn child.
It is dangerous to drive after taking drugs. The effects of drugs can affect driving ability, increasing the chance of an accident.
Under occupational health and safety legislation, all employees have a responsibility to make sure they look after their own and their co-workers' safety.
There is evidence that after prolonged use, many drugs can cause dependence. People who use a drug regularly can develop dependence and tolerance to it. This means they need to take larger amounts of the drug to get the same effect.
In Australia, there are many different treatment options for drug problems. Some aim to help a person stop using a drug, while others aim to reduce the risks and harm related to their drug use.
If a dependent person stops taking a drug, they may have withdrawal symptoms and cravings while their body gets used to functioning without the drug.
Note: Seek medical advice for withdrawal from alcohol or benzodiazepines, as it may cause seizures.
If you are concerned about someone’s drug use, there is help available. Contact the alcohol and drug information service in your state or territory.
What to do in a crisis
Always call triple zero (000) if a drug overdose is known or suspected and remember that paramedics are not obliged to involve the police.
If someone overdoses or has an adverse reaction while using GHB, it is very important that they receive professional help as soon as possible. A quick response can save their life.
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.
Educational resources on drugs
This information has been adapted from the pamphlet Drugs and their effects, produced by the Australian Drug Foundation. For single copies of this pamphlet, contact DrugInfo (Victoria only). Multiple copies are available from the ADF Bookshop.
Last updated: 27 June 2014