Illicit drug use is estimated to cost $193 billion a year with $11 billion just in healthcare costs alone. This guide will explore the facts behind drug use and abuse, including in-depth resources you can use to help someone you love or care about, including children, teens, and seniors.
If you’re not very familiar with drug use and abuse, you should start by understanding the different classes of drugs. Drug abuse often starts as recreational drug use. Sometimes, individuals are predisposed to becoming addicted. Other times, the very nature of the drug itself makes the person physically dependent on it.
These drugs are known as “uppers” or stimulants and are typically made synthetically in a cleanroom or unsafe illegal home labs. Additionally, they are actually divided up into a very large class of stimulants which includes amphetamines, dextroamphetamines, and methamphetamines.
Even so, all amphetamines have effects that are so similar, even experienced users might not be able to tell what drug they’ve taken.
Stimulants evoke a sense of well-being and high energy. They release social inhibitions, and give the user the feeling of cleverness, increased competence, and power.
The effects of the drugs on the central nervous system are similar to effects of cocaine, but they tend to last longer (4 to 6 hours, depending on dose and potency).
Taking amphetamines is easy for the users – they can be ingested orally, smoked, or snorted. Injecting or smoking causes a more immediate reaction and sensation – a rush – that lasts only a few minutes. It’s described as being more intense and extremely pleasurable.
Oral, or intranasal, use produces a milder form of the euphoria, but not a rush. Because injection and snorting are painful, many users take these drugs orally, though the taste is bitter.
One of the most toxic forms of amphetamines is smokeable methamphetamine. It’s a translucent rock-like drug which is highly addictive and toxic.
Chronic use of this form of the drug and, in many respects any amphetamine, produces a psychosis that resembled clinical schizophrenia. Patients who are admitted to rehab often suffer from paranoia, picking at the skin, auditory and visual hallucinations, and other similar symptoms, like:
Chronic users may also become extremely violent and their behavior erratic.
Slang terms for amphetamines include:
Chronic amphetamine use produces a psychosis that resembles schizophrenia and is characterized by paranoia, picking at the skin, and auditory and visual hallucinations. Extremely violent and erratic behavior is frequently seen among chronic abusers of amphetamines.
The number of habitual cocaine users has declined by 75% since 1986, but it’s still a popular drug for many people. Cocaine is a drug that’s made from the leaves of the coca plant. It’s a powerful brain stimulant and extremely addictive.
It’s typically distributed on the street in two forms: cocaine hydrochloride and “crack.”
Cocaine hydrochloride is a fine powder that can be snorted or dissolved in water and then injected. Crack cocaine is cocaine hydrochloride that’s been processed with ammonia or sodium bicarbonate and water. It forms freebase cocaine. The chips, chunks, or rocks that form during the process can be smoked.
Like amphetamines, cocaine is highly addictive. And, when crack cocaine or injectable cocaine reaches the brain, it brings on an intense and immediate “high.” Snorted cocaine produces a slower “high” which is not as intense. Either way, the drug produces a surge in energy and a feeling of intense pleasure. It also gives the user an increased sense of confidence.
The effects of powder cocaine will last roughly 20 minutes. Crack’s “high” lasts only 12 minutes.
Those who use cocaine heavily may experience various symptoms like:
Unfortunately, because cocaine’s effects are so short, users often have to go on “coke binges” to avoid “coke crash” – withdrawal symptoms that include:
Other negative effects of chronic cocaine use include:
“Party drugs” or “rave drugs” are often associated with designer drugs. Designer drugs are modified restricted drugs (drugs that are normally only available with a prescription or whose purchase is limited by a pharmacy, even when it is sold “over the counter”).
They are made by “underground chemists” to create street drugs that aren’t listed as “controlled substances” by the Drug Enforcement Administration. A designer drug is usually created by changing the molecular structure of an already-existing drug, thereby creating a new substance.
An example of this would be Ecstasy. Street names for these types of drugs vary according to the time, place or the manufacturer or chemist.
Because they are created in labs by unlicensed and untrained amateur chemists, they can be extremely dangerous. Often, there is little, or no, standardization or testing done on dosing, efficacy, tolerances, or toxicity.
In fact, most of the time, designer drugs are more dangerous and potent than the original drug that it’s based on. And, these drugs can be derived from fentanyl or methamphetamine, making them highly addictive.
The pharmaceutical drug, fentanyl, was originally created for use as an anesthetic during surgeries. Methamphetamine is a type of amphetamine (a stimulant) which is highly addictive.
Unfortunately, because the drugs are completely uncontrolled and “homegrown,” they have been associated with hundreds of unintentional deaths in the United States. Most often, they are designed to duplicate the euphoric effects of heroin.
The Fentanyl-based designer drugs have limited effects, with “highs” lasting just 30 to 90 minutes. And, these drugs are often injected, increasing their efficacy substantially. This also has the effect of intensifying the “high” experienced, which is why many users inject them.
But, these drugs can also be snorted or smoked, which is done to avoid the risk of getting HIV via infected needles.
Regardless, Fentanyl-derived drugs are extremely dangerous, and can result in respiratory paralysis suddenly and immediately after drug administration. In many instances, users who overdose on the drugs die with the needles still in their arm.
Side effects for designer drugs vary, and depend on the underlying chemical composition and what the drug is based off. For example, drugs based on methamphetamines will have side effects similar to amphetamine use. Fentanyl-derived drugs will have side effects related to this class of drug.
Ecstasy began as a designer drug and has become more mainstream over time. It’s chemical or technical name is methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). It’s a synthetic drug that acts both as a stimulant and as a hallucinogen.
Users sometimes take it for the sense of well-being it gives them, the sensory distortions they experience while on the drug, or to stay awake through an all-night rave. The drug stimulates the central nervous system and produces hallucinogenic effects.
The current street price for a hit (one pill) of ecstasy is $10 to $20.
The drug is one of a few that has been shown to cause brain damage in animals, even after just one use. It depletes a very important chemical in the brain, called serotonin, which affects mood and behavior. Serotonin also regulates sleep and wake cycles, eating habits, thinking processes and aggressive behavior along with sexual function and sensitivity to pain.
Use of ecstasy can reduce serotonin levels in the brains of rats by 90 percent for at least 2 weeks.
Another risk users face is serious dehydration and exhaustion from the combination of the drug and activities often associated with it, like intense dancing. Some users die of heat stroke.
Because the drug is derived from methamphetamine, it has similar side effects as amphetamines, but also may cause additional symptoms, like:
Herbal ecstasy is used to describe a combination of herbs that are, in and of themselves, legal, inexpensive, and marketed as giving the user a natural “high.”
The herbs can be purchased over the counter in any drug store, music stores, and shops. Cost is usually just $3 per pill, or less.
The natural “high” comes from consuming roughly 4 pills.
Sometimes, the packaging includes names like “Herbal Ecstacy,” (sic) “Cloud 9,” and “Ultimate Xphoria.” Additionally, vendors promise increased energy, inner “visions,” and sometimes “sexual sensations” or “cosmic consciousness.”
Users often feel relaxed, energetic, but tingly. These sensations are caused by the caffeine in the product along with the ephedra. Combined, these two ingredients are responsible for the high most people feel.
Because ephedra has been used in China for over 2,000 years to treat respiratory problems, most users believe that it’s safe without any adverse effects.
The active compound in ephedra is ephedrine, which is a chemical used in pharmaceutical-based decongestants and some asthma medications.
However, at increased dosages, the FDA has received reports of adverse reactions, including:
An increase in blood pressure may result from excessive caffeine intake, and death could occur in certain individuals who overdose on it.
Heroin is derived from morphine. It’s obtained from opium, specifically, the poppy.
Today’s heroin is 40 percent pure, and can be up to 70 percent pure. Compare this with heroin available in 1980, which was typically 4 percent pure. It’s not surprising that heroin is a very addictive drug.
It’s also a depressant or “downer” because it affects the brain’s pleasure systems, interfering with the user’s ability to perceive pain. It’s for this reason that heroin addicts don’t feel pain, or feel reduced sensation of pain, while on the drug. It can be used in a variety of ways, including:
Heroin is a fast-acting drug when injected or smoked. When it is injected, it will reach the brain within 15 to 30 seconds.
When smoked, it reaches the brain in 7 seconds. The “high” that’s experienced is intense pleasure. Users quickly develop tolerance and need more of the drug to get the same effects.
Effects of the drug may cause:
Quitting is not easy for heroin users. In fact, it is unsafe for them to simply quit “cold turkey” because the side effects are serious, and include:
Other negative consequences from continued use of heroin include:
Inhalants are used in everyday household products, including cleaners and cleansers. Unfortunately, they are also used by some individuals to get high. More than 1,000 household products on the market today can be misused as inhalants, and they’re the most frequently used drug among children with more than one in five 8th graders having used them at least once in the past.
Airplane glue, nail polish remover, cleaning fluids, hair spray, gasoline, propellant in aerosol cans, spray paint, fabric protector, cooking spray, and correction fluid.
Users typically sniff, snort, bag (put the fumes inside of a plastic bag to inhale), or “huff,” (soak a rag or sock with the inhalant and breath it in through the fabric) to get high.
Inhalants slow down the body’s functions. Users feel stimulated, disoriented, out-of-control, giddy, light-headed, and sometimes display violent behavior. Inhalant abuse can cause severe damage to the brain and nervous system.
It can also impair mental and physical functioning – sometimes permanently. That’s because inhalants starve the body of oxygen. If severe enough, they can lead to sudden sniffing death (SSD), even if used only once. Users can also suffocate themselves if they are bagging the inhalant. A heavy user may find, over time, that they need more and more of the inhalant to get high. These users are at risk for serious brain damage.
Signs that someone is using, symptoms, and negative effects, of this type of drug use include:
LSD is one of the more common hallucinogens on the market. It was discovered in 1938 by Dr. Albert Hofmann, and remains one of the most potent mood-changing chemicals ever known.
It’s made from lysergic acid, found in ergot, which is a fungus that grows on rye and other grains. Currently, it’s classified under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, which includes drugs with no medical use and a high potential for abuse.
LSD is commonly known as “acid” on the street, and is sold in tablets, capsules, or occasionally in liquid form.
It is a colorless, odorless, drug and has a slightly bitter taste. Most users ingest it orally. Usually LSD is sold as “blotter acid,” where the drug is imprinted on small, colorful sheets of paper.
A single dose may cost between $4 and $5 and the effects can last from 3 to 12 hours.
Users taking acid often refer to the “high” as a “trip,” with acute adverse reactions as a “bad trip.” Users may experience panic, confusion, suspicion, anxiety, and loss of control. Flashbacks can occur years after the user has stopped taking the drug.
Most users of LSD voluntarily decrease or stop its use over time and it is not considered to be an addicting drug because it does not produce compulsive drug-seeking behavior like many other drugs.
Potential negative side-effects include:
Marijuana is a green, brown, or gray mixture of dried, shredded flowers or leaves of the hemp plant. It is the most commonly used illegal drug in America.
Most users make a cigarette-like device with loose marijuana, called a “joint,” but it can also be smoked in a water pipe, called a “bong.” Some users mix the drug into foods or use it to brew a tea. Hash users smoke it in a pipe or mix it with tobacco and smoke it similar to how a cigarette is smoked.
Other methods include rolling the marijuana into a cigar, called a “blunt.” When it’s smoked this way, it’s sometimes combined with a 40 oz bottle of malt liquor. Combined, it’s referred to as a “B-40.”
All forms of marijuana contain THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), and are considered psychoactive drugs. All told, there are about 400 chemicals in a cannabis plant, but THC is the one that affects the brain the most.
When smoked, marijuana is damaging to the lungs and pulmonary system. The smoke contains some of the same carcinogens and toxic particulates as tobacco, sometimes in higher concentrations. Long-term users of cannabis may develop psychological dependence and require more of the drug to get the same effect.
Negative consequences of the drug include:
Some types of mushrooms that are naturally-occurring contain hallucinogenic chemicals. Specifically, psilocybin and psilocin. These mushrooms are generally grown in Mexico and Central America, and have been used in native rituals for thousands of years.
When dried, the mushrooms have roughly 0.4% psilocybin and only trace amounts of psilocin. Users ingest 4-8 milligrams of the active hallucinogenic chemicals (2 grams of dried mushrooms) to get an effect similar to LSD, but much milder, which lasts roughly six hours.
The mushrooms have a bitter taste, and can be eaten or brewed into a tea. However, the effects are not very predictable, with potency varying by batch, amount ingested, and even the user’s “high” can vary based on the user’s expectations, mood, surroundings, and general frame of mind while using.
When ingested, the drug typically causes nausea prior to the desired hallucinogenic effect. The high from using mushrooms is mild and usually is limited to distorted perceptions, like distorted sensation of touch, smell, sight, and sound.
Phencyclidine, or PCP, is a white powder that’s bitter, with a chemical taste. It’s listed as an illicit drug and is sold as a tablet, capsule, and in raw powder form. It’s either snorted, smoked, or eaten.
When it is smoked, PCP is applied to a leafy material, like mint or parsley. When mixed with other drugs, like marijuana, it’s called “crystal supergrass” or “killer joints.”
PCP is often done unknowingly by users because it’s secretly added to other drugs like marijuana LSD, and methamphetamine. The effects last about 2 hours, though may continue throughout the day. Users may experience negative side effects for up to two to three days.
Some of these effects include:
When users “get high” from this drug, they may experience:
On the street, it is often sold as “angel dust,” “ozone,” “wack” and “rocket fuel.”
What can the average person do to help stop drug abuse?
Answer: Communication is the number one thing you can do to help prevent drug use and abuse. Scare tactics aren’t necessary, but objective information is. Educate your children, or friends, about the side effects, uses, and abuses of common drugs. It may also help to take them to a rehab clinic to speak to volunteers or even patients about their experiences and what it’s like “afterwards.” Clinics may be outpatient or inpatient, depending on the specific needs of the client.
Many drug users, especially young users, start taking drugs out of curiosity.
Haven’t we already lost the war on drugs?
Answer: No. Today, there are 10 million fewer drug users than 1985. Cocaine usage has dropped significantly, with 74 percent fewer regular cocaine users alive today.
Illicit drug usage, in general, has been declining, with 45% fewer regular users of illicit drugs.
What can be done to help the remaining users?
Answer: More studies are needed, more treatment programs are necessary, and more education is needed to help prevent young users from ever starting.
Parental Involvement in Substance Abuse Treatment
Families, peers, schools, and communities are important foundations for youths and young adults. Previous research shows that youths who report their parents having an active role in their day-to-day activities, and who show disapproval of substance abuse, are less likely to abuse drugs than youths whose parents are not actively involved in their day-to-day life.
A Secular Approach to Alcohol & Substance Abuse Recovery
Many individuals prefer a secular approach to addiction treatment, as opposed to “12-Steps”-based program, because the 12-Steps” based programs tend to have religious undertones or focus on religious values during the treatment process. A secular-based treatment program is non-religious or non-denominational.
If you suspect a loved one or friend is abusing drugs, and you would like a non-religious, secular, alternative, here are some resources that may help:
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT)
Child Welfare Information Gateway
Secular Organizations for Sobriety
If you know someone who has dangerous or risky drinking behavior, and they are willing to accept counsel or advice from a friend, here are some resources that may help you:
According to the Core Institute, an organization that surveys college drinking practices, 300,000 of today’s college students will die from alcohol-related causes including drunk driving accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, cancer and heart disease.
159,000 of today’s first- year college students are expected to drop out of school in their first year due to alcohol- or other drug-related reasons. The average student spends roughly $900 on alcohol per year.
Almost one-third of college students admit to having missed at least one class because of alcohol or drug use, with nearly one-quarter of students failing a test or project because of the aftereffects of drinking or doing drugs.
One night of heavy drinking can impair your ability to think abstractly for up to 30 days. It also limits your ability to absorb textbook reading, relating it to what your professor says in class, and think strategically.
If you, or someone you know and care about, is abusing alcohol or drugs, here are a few resources that may help you: