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Illegal drugs are drugs which have controls on them by a government and are illegal in certain situations (a person is not allowed to have them). A drug is any chemical designed to affect the human body. A psychoactive drug is a drug that affects the brain. Some controlled drugs are allowed if you have permission (called a "prescription") from a doctor. Other drugs are illegal - meaning you are never allowed to have them. Individual countries and places have different laws about different drugs, and there are also international treaties against some drugs. The most used drugs are not illegal.
Types of psychoactive drugs and their effects
There are many categories (types) of psychoactive drugs. These categories have subcategories (categories within categories). For example, benzodiazepines and opiates are both subcategories of depressants. Some drugs such as ketamine have elements of two categories (hallucinogens and depressants). Every drug is different, so it is important to know the effects of each individual drug, not just the general group.
Hallucinogens change the way people see, hear, feel or think. The three main groups of hallucinogens are: psychedelics, dissociatives and deliriants. Each group has different effects. They may cause hallucinations, when a person imagines something that is not really there.
Stimulants speed up the central nervous system. People using stimulants may feel happy and excited, and have more energy, concentration or motivation. Stimulants make it difficult to sleep.
Depressants are drugs which slow down the central nervous system. People using depressants may feel happy and content, as well as sleepy and relaxed. Depressants often slow down bodily functions such as breathing and heart rate, and may make it hard to speak (slurred speech) or move properly in large enough doses, in which case they may be harmful.
Antipsychotics are drugs which balance people's moods or stop hallucinations. Many anti-psychotics are legal prescription drug such as anti-depressants (which are used to help to stop people feeling depressed).
Why people use drugs
People might use drugs as medicine if they are sick and the drugs help make them better. People might also use drugs recreationally (to have fun). These usually are illegal drugs. Some people use drugs to make themselves more productive or to help themselves stay awake- in this case they would use a stimulant such as amphetamines or caffeine.
Some people use drugs for spiritual or religious reasons - some Christians use small doses of wine (alcohol) as part of their religious ceremonies, and members of the Native American Church use Peyote (a type of cactus that contains the drug mescaline). Some Hindus use cannabis (a plant that contains two main chemicals called THC and CBD) as part of their religious rites.
Some people also use drugs because they are addicted. This will be explained further below.
Drugs and the law
The law is different in each country. A drug can be legal in one country and illegal in another. For instance, in Ecuador, cannabis is legal to have and in the United States of America it is illegal to have cannabis. In the United Arab Emirates no one is allowed to have alcohol, but in the United States adults are allowed to have alcohol. Some drugs are only legal if you have permission (called a "prescription" or "recommendation") from a doctor to have them as medicine. If a person is caught by the police with controlled drugs they are not allowed to have, they may be taken to court and get fined (they have to pay money to the government), or even go to jail (or in some countries, they may be executed). It is important to know what the law says about drugs in your country or religion/state.
Health effects of drugs
Drugs can have many different effects on a person's health. Some drugs such as tobacco (a plant that contains a drug called nicotine) and alcohol directly cause hundreds of thousands of people to die every year. Other drugs such as cannabis or psilocybin mushrooms (sometimes called "magic mushrooms") cause no deaths. However even if a drug doesn't cause any deaths directly, there are other health effects to be aware of. Someone who has taken a drug and is experiencing its effects is said to be "intoxicated". People who are intoxicated may do things they otherwise would not do, and they may be unable to safely drive or operate machinery. If an intoxicated person does drive a car/vehicle or operate machinery it may cause accidents, depending on how much of the drug they have had and how affected they are.
Overdosing is when a person takes too much of a drug at once and it becomes very dangerous for their health - they might even die. Some drugs (such as heroin, alcohol and aspirin) are easy to overdose on, while others are nearly impossible to overdose on (LSD, cannabis). Many drugs can cause long term health effects separate from just their short term effects, for instance smoking tobacco can cause cancer, and abusing alcohol can cause liver damage.
Many drugs are used as medicine to help make sick people better. For instance opiates (like morphine, heroin and codeine) are analgesics (pain killers). Nitrous oxide and ketamine are used as anaesthetics to put people and animals to sleep during a surgical operation. Amphetamines can even be legally prescribed by a doctor for attention disorders in some countries, such as the United States.
Using two drugs together can sometimes cause positive or negative reactions (including life-threatening ones). Generally it is best to ask a medical professional such as a doctor before combining two drugs.
Addiction and dependence
Addiction is when a person takes a drug constantly because they think they need it and find it very hard to stop. Dependence is when a person's body adapts to a drug so that the body is more resistant and starts craving the drug all the time - if a dependent person stops taking that drug, they may feel very sick, or rarely, even die without medical help. Addiction and dependence can happen separately to each other, and people can be come addicted to things that are not drugs (such as gambling, sex or just about any activity). Addiction and dependence can sometimes make it very hard for a person to live a normal life, depending on the situation they are in. Some drugs are known to be very addictive (they often cause addiction: such as alcohol, heroin, tobacco, methamphetamine and cocaine) whereas other drugs are known to be slightly less addictive (such as khat, cannabis and caffeine) or not potentially addictive at all (such as LSD and Psilocybin mushrooms).
There are many different ways of using drugs. Different drugs can be used in different ways, depending on the drug. Some drugs are available in different forms and each form can only be used a certain way - for instance crack cocaine (cocaine in a base form) works much better when smoked or vaporized, and powder cocaine (cocaine in a salt form) is usually snorted. Drugs can be taken:
- Orally - This means they are put into the mouth and swallowed, for instance a pill.
- Smoked - This means the drug is burned and then the smoke that is produced is inhaled in by the user, for instance through a pipe, bong, cigar or cigarette.
- Insuflated - This means the drug is snorted up a person's nose.
- Vaporized - This means a drug is heated up until it turns into a vapour, then the vapour is breathed in.
- Sub lingually - This means the drug is absorbed through the vein under a person's tongue.
- Bucally - This means the drug is absorbed through a person's cheek.
- Intravenous - Also called IV - this means a drug is injected into a person's veins using a needle.
- Intramuscular - Also called IM - the drug is injected into a person's muscle using a needle
- Rectally - This means the drug is put into someone's anus and absorbed there - usually via something called a suppository.
- A few drugs, such as nicotine and fentanyl, can even be absorbed through a person's skin.
Orally is the slowest method of using a drug as it must be digested in the stomach first. Injecting a drug (IV) is the fastest and the most likely to lead to an overdose. It is important to always use clean needles when injecting - injecting with used or dirty needles can spread deadly infections such as Hepatitis C or HIV.
Depending on the drug, smoking can lead to cancer (for instance smoking tobacco can cause cancer). Smoking can also sometimes lead to emphysema (a disease of the lungs), depending on what is being smoked. Insuflating a drug can lead to ear, nose and throat conditions depending on the drug being used. Eating a drug can sometimes cause mouth-related problems such as tooth decay.